The Man in the Marine Cap

Which of us was the "real American" and "true patriot"?

Here’s my July column for the Holland Sentinel. Since it appears on Fourth of July weekend, it’s got just a tiny discussion of patriotism…

On my walk today I passed a man who, from the color of his hair and telltale older man gait, seemed to be about my age. But while I was wearing a baseball cap, I could see that he was wearing a United States Marines cap—also known as a “utility cap” or “eight-pointed cover.” (I know this because I went home and looked it up.)

From a distance I could see that he saluted the American flag whenever he passed a home with an outdoor flag. It wasn’t a stand-at-attention (or even an especially snappy) salute, but it wasn’t anything casual either. He recognized the flags he saw and saluted them. And where I live in Park Township, there are a lot of American flags to acknowledge.

When I passed this man, I said a friendly “hello,” and he offered me an enthusiastic “good morning!”

I’ve been thinking about him ever since. Almost immediately of course I recognized him as patriotic, probably a veteran, and certainly someone who is proud of his country. Anyone who paid any attention to him this morning could see those same things. The saluting didn’t seem strange—curious, but not weird. I thought it was touching.

I didn’t salute any of the flags I passed. I noticed them, though, just as I notice all the yard signs and other declarations of faith and patriotism common to my neighborhood. But I wondered: “Am I patriotic even if I don’t salute, even if I seem to hurry past, more concerned about my heart rate and step total than acknowledging each flag?”

The answer, I believe, is yes: I do love my country, but I am not uncritical of it. I am grateful for all the privileges and freedoms I enjoy because I was born here, but most days I wish that my country was better than it often is. I write this column in part because I know that we are capable of being better. I want to experience that “more perfect union” described in the Preamble to the Constitution.

Is wanting my country to be better, to aspire to something more, a sign that I am not patriotic? To some, I know, it is.

In the current political climate, it is not unusual to hear about “real Americans” and “true patriots,” terms which are used to make clear distinctions between some Americans and others (like me) who seem to find fault, who are always complaining about something, who keep hoping that the “liberty and justice for all” mentioned in the Pledge of Allegiance will one day extend to every citizen.

This Independence Day weekend I will make sure my flag (the biggest one I could find on Amazon) is attached to the front of my house. When the Olympics begin in Tokyo, I will be the first to stand and cheer for athletes wearing the red, white, and blue. I am a patriot. Through and through. I shouldn’t have to insist on the right to use that word to describe myself.

In 2008, at a town hall meeting in Minnesota, then-Republican presidential candidate John McCain was taking questions from voters when a woman named Gayle Quinnel took the microphone and said: “I gotta ask you a question. I can’t trust Obama,” she told McCain. “I have read about him and he’s not…he’s not…he’s an Arab. And….”

Before she could ask her question, whatever it was, McCain stopped her and said, “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man, a citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues. That’s what this campaign is all about.”

It all seems so quaint now—this notion that we are all Americans who “happen to have disagreements.” I find myself wishing that we could get back there. I wish we could acknowledge that we are all Americans who occasionally disagree on “fundamental issues”–like taxes and the economy and how police should do their jobs. We disagree precisely because we love this country. We disagree because we have competing ideas about how to be better. The notion that some people “hate America” because they do not agree with the policies of one party is, well, absurd. And we need to get rid of it.

In hindsight I wish I had stopped this morning and asked the man wearing the Marine cap if he wanted to walk with someone. I would have enjoyed getting to know him. I almost always enjoy those conversations. If he had been willing to talk, I could have learned something about how others see things and what they are most concerned about. That would have been a good way to start the day.