“..America, America, God shed his grace on thee, and crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea.” Destiny, morality, unity.
“Under a spreading chestnut tree, the village smithy stands; a mighty man is he, with large and sinewy hands.” Strength, stability, primal power.
These poetic lines of comfort and conviction encapsulate an American preeminence that my generation is struggling to pass on to you Millennials. Yes, I know you were born on third base and thought you hit a triple. I got an earful—or a faceful—of Millennial pride when I read a commentary by Erin Heilman in The Baltimore Sun (Jan. 28). She’s a gifted writer, thinker, and certainly not lacking in confidence. Or was that arrogance?
“We are the generation rising. Soon we will be the VPs, the CEOs…While you ponder the good old days,..I will continue to make the world better…As millennials, we fight to make our world fair. We see injustice and we act…You will fade and we will brighten…Now it is our time. Watch us. We will rise to a new height. We are millennials.”
The blacksmith—with large and sinewy hands—had all but disappeared by the time I entered kindergarten three months after D-Day. Farm boys from Ohio, car mechanics from Michigan, and store clerks from California waded ashore through blood-soaked waters and a hail of bullets at Omaha Beach. Erin, these boys also “saw injustice and acted,” putting their lives on the line for our country. Row upon row of white crosses are silent testimony to their sacrifice.
Yes, one generation fades and makes way for newer ones. I met a man of my era recently in South Carolina. An instant friendship formed when we discovered we were both from Cincinnati. In giving me a tour of his impressive mansion, he took me down an elevator to his basement recreation room. I asked him about a placard on the wall, a street number—“2917.” He said, “I grew up in a tenement, a government housing project. I went to see the old building when back in Cincinnati. They were tearing the place down, and, seeing my house number in a pile of rubble, I asked permission to take it. I never want to forget where I came from.”
I got a lump in my throat when this humble man said those words—“I never want to forget where I came from.” I’m afraid Erin thinks she came from third base. Admittedly, my generation’s past includes denial of rights to women and minorities, but Erin seems to have a blind spot for our founders and fighters who forged a nation like no other on earth. They were the blacksmiths of our foundational eras.
I recently wrote about another man from Cincinnati whose hardscrabble youth included being sent to a home for indigents on an island in Boston harbor. He hurdled over obstacles to become a champion runner—an Olympic medalist who also won a record seven Boston Marathons—and was so obsessed with the work ethic that he crawled out of his sickbed at age 70 to plant a garden. He died two days later of stomach cancer. Clarence DeMar.
Erin, I’ll admit that the past I ponder includes some bad actors and social injustices. But we knew our American history pretty well and took pride in stories like Clarence DeMar’s and that of my South Carolina friend who wants to remember where he came from. Call it Myth America instead of Miss America, but most of it is real and got you to third base.
Whether or not Alexis de Tocqueville really said that “America is great because America is good,” it suggests that a spiritual thrust to our endeavors would help solidify American greatness. I think Erin’s generation has tremendous potential and will supply our future leaders and problem solvers. And I also believe that God did shed his grace on America and that it’s time for us all, young and old, to unite and crown that moral goodness with brotherhood and sisterhood—from sea to shining sea. Go Millennials! Help us be America strong!
James F. Burns is a professor emeritus at the University of Florida.