Two Perspectives: Two Americas

By Gary Simon

His name was Dick Schackman. He was also my uncle and my early mentor. Had my mother any knowledge of some of the not-so-adolescent-affairs my uncle arranged for me, she would never have allowed her brother to take her eldest son under his wing. No youngster can forget his first real adult encounter, and for that, I will always be indebted to Shacky. In many ways he was my hero, and not just because he made a mensch out of me at an early age. It was on account of the man he was including his uneven temper, his readiness to offer a dissertation upon any topic he felt worth venting about, and his commitment to his own heartfelt, though often simplistic, soapbox opinions.

To hear my uncle proselytize on timely topics was usually a real joy. So few in my extended family discussed much of anything, let alone voiced an opinion, outside of sports or business. But not my balding, bachelor uncle and weekly companion to every Wednesday night Chicago Black Hawk hockey game in the Windy City. Even there, sitting alongside me, he would bellow out views over which statesmen and theologians have wrangled through the centuries. I don¹t know how much preparation went into his thinking since his speeches were far from elevated or of a highly refined nature. They were original though, and fresh and to the point. Moreover, topics he enjoyed bandying about were not of a varied nature. They were pretty much grounded in politics, and whenever he felt called upon to draw you into battle, it was with the confidence that he would maintain the upper hand. Backing away from any on-comer was not his character. Unlike the dozens of other relatives, Dick plowed straight ahead, beginning an argument where none previously existed and filibustering the room until he knew you understood his position. Should one choose to rebut however, the sheer volume of his delivery would deafen and squash that poor soul instantly.

These wonderful rantings were occurring when city folks had just begun to migrate to the suburbs in the late fifties and early sixties. The best time then to catch Unc was during the barbecue weekend gatherings at my parents¹ house in Skokie, Illinois. There most every summer Sunday Jack Brickhouse could be heard screaming ³Hey, Hey² to every Ernie Banks or Ron Santo swat out of the ballpark. In between each seventh inning stretch would be about the time Shacky would make his regal entrance. At whatever hour he arrived, it was like royalty had just graced the room. No one could accuse him of not being the gentleman as he smiled and cajoled and kissed the female company and shook everyone else¹s hand. Once mom had him settled in, she would fill his plate with skirt steaks, hamburgers, slaw and potatoes. Inevitably, the conversation would begin quietly, with a few aunts and uncles circling around Unc. Before long, and with Brickhouse still in the background, he would have the company eating out of his hand. In fact, the air was so electric it felt as if Martin Luther King were about to address his listeners. Furthermore, if the topic was politics or current events, you could bet your last shirt what would be coming next.

This by no means implies that the man didn¹t love sports. He was especially partial to two such activities. Besides the Hawks, he would allow me to tag along with him on many wintry Sunday mornings to watch Chicago Bear Football. It was like having a big brother on the weekends. But then it happened. Worse than any jolt or slap I experienced. More impact and zip than a George Blanda-against-the-wind-in-the-freezing-snow-45-yard-field goal. It was akin to one exploding a bag or setting off a canon. At that moment frozen in time and for no apparent reason that I can recall he looked down at me with those pale blue eyes and wrinkled brow and in a harsh voice commanded, "Don¹t you forget it. Don¹t you forget that this is the greatest g-d damn country of them all."

I don¹t remember him actually turning to me and testing this pithy declaration before or after any particular Junior Gillian run (although this may be exactly how it happened). But I shouldn¹t have been overly surprised by his outburst. The more he traveled abroad the further ingrained he became in the Stars and Stripes. Still, this was actually the first time he laid it out for me straight, a position he would repeat many times over. A Dick Shackman trip to South America (a favorite yearly jaunt) would bring him back as a reincarnated General Patton or a transmogrified Sunday school preacher. In two arms he would bear gifts and goodies for his sister, brother-in-law and nephew. It would usually require a few weeks for him to fully release his pent up energy but we would allow him his say, right in the middle of mom¹s living room. That¹s where the majority of his sermonizing took place­indoors. Rarely would he raise these anomalies outdoors and never at a Chicago Bear-ten-below-zero-Solder-Field-football game. But here today, right on the fifty-yard line, (maybe it wasn¹t Junior Gillian; possibly it was Gale or some long pass down field) this man, whose words I would have gratuitously placed alongside the workings of Talmudic scholarship, blurts out, "This American ground should be kissed every morning. Once you visit Latin America and see the poverty, deprivation and cruelty, you won¹t think twice about kissing this land."

Maybe it was the extreme cold or the extra-long, overly stuffed hot-dog I ate or the drops of whiskey he mixed with my hot chocolate that had me quizzically starring back at him. This was my first in-your-face direct dose of patriotism, which at the right time, I guess, had its place. But coming unannounced as it did, this flash edict struck me as hollow and a bit unfair. At that moment I couldn¹t recall Shacky ever having had a kind word for Eisenhower, Congress, the Senate or the U.S. judicial system. To his credit, he always had his eyes open to his country¹s hypocrisies and wrongdoings. But with the Bears losing and the fans stomping the stands, this was no time for his nephew to start undermining his uncle¹s favorite nation. If I wanted to see my cozy bed again, I better start believing that this was the only land worth living for, worth dying for on God¹s green planet.

That was then. Today my hair is salt and pepper and I have had four decades to reflect upon his resolute words. While I understood his patriotism, I found his arguments more grounded in sentiment than fact. My regret is that he is no longer here for me to remind him of that fact, or to raise several issues of my own. For instance, if America (according to his ³thinking²) deserved the highest accolades, then why every year did he desert his luxurious Lake Shore Drive condo and vacation abroad? Maybe that¹s not fair. His love and appreciation for other cultures south of our borders were sincere. He always demonstrated a willingness to reach out to others less fortunate. In that sense his philanthropy was genuine. At home in Chicago, he rarely passed a beggar or peddler without dropping a few dollars in the person¹s hands. These are cherished memories as are others, such as his keeping me warm at football games, buying me my first Elvis album, taking me to the beach and giving me money to place in a legless man¹s bucket. But never do I recall him vacationing throughout any of our 50 states.

After I turned 21 my uncle drifted out of my life. Without this contact I can¹t say for certain whether he ever traveled to Malibu or visited Martha¹s Vineyards. It¹s all rather moot though since the "real" gift I took from him was his passion for America. I sometimes think of that dedication, particularly now, living as I do in these tainted times, when I find no reason to demonstrate my own patriotism. Shacky¹s day was a different era in a far distant period. America had survived a Depression, two World Wars and Korea. These in themselves were reasons enough for his zealousness.

But I am of a different generation. I have a tremendous appreciation of my grandparents on my father¹s side­sturdy immigrants from Russia. That same independence was never detected in my parents, although I was a bit in awe of them for having survived the crash and Hitler. And while their attitudes remained steady over the years, my perspectives were changing and maturing as an undergraduate at the University of Missouri. Shacky was still part of my life but so too were Arnold, Carlyle, Ruskin, Coleridge, Twain, Dickens and Steinbeck. These writers provided more than an awakening in me. Here were new ideas and experiences that would lend shape and form to my own sensibilities. By the time I received my Master¹s from the University of Wisconsin in the early 70s, I had formulated a variety of opinions, a number of which I knew would be in violation of my uncle¹s.

The classics and English literature laid the foundation. 19th century and early 20th writers opened my eyes. Aside from Alcott and Emerson there was Thoreau, ah Thoreau, who reinforced my own independence and love of nature. On one page of "Civil Disobedience," I found more clout and fireworks than I could uncover from a year¹s stack of newspapers. There were others, so many giants like Whitman, Norris, Lewis and Dreiser who touched me and challenged me to think. I really don¹t know how Shacky would have taken to Ralph Waldo or Dos Passos or Hemingway, (I always want to think the best of him), but one thought was certain­it was time to begin my own fresh start.

There was one problem, though. Viet Nam was in the air. I had three options­to fight, to flee to Canada or to apply as a conscientious objector. As much as Shacky would have liked me to defend my country, I don¹t think he would have understood my refusal. Nor would he have been patient enough to hear my words. All this is speculation since we had already gone our separate ways. Besides I don¹t believe there would have been enough sound reasons for me to jeopardize my life or anyone else¹s, especially when I didn¹t understand my country¹s or its military¹s objective. If I were a youth today, called upon to serve in Iraq, I would raise those same questions: Why am I going? What are my country¹s objectives? Are the causes and reasons justifiable enough for killing? Yes, it¹s a good thing Shacky wasn¹t around. He wouldn¹t want to hear how borders and governments and flags and religions make for bad neighbors. I sincerely believe, if he could, he would have taken a swipe at me.

But then I would have had a reason to fight back, not only at my country for not telling me the truth, but now at you Dick, for not always looking for the truth. We were two generations, wearing different clothes and carrying different cards. When it came to duty and obligation, you, I must respectfully admit, wore blinkers. You would probably find me unappreciative and while you would defend my right to protest (that he would) you would also be the first to throw me into the front lines.

For me, the 60s ended as fast as they began. Those seeds of hope and new beginnings that raced from Berkeley to Madison and back again burned themselves out before they took hold. The fervor of socialism and democracy with which students, then young adults, tried to find their way through the maze of smoke and riots, fizzled from lack of firm and well-rooted convictions. Within a few short years, peace slogans and symbols were replaced by ROTC uniforms. The names Karleton Armstrong and Kent State were still within earshot but emerging on the horizon now was a quieter group that required a more sedate landscape. With our bombs, carnage and Vietnam still in the forefront, Watergate was dropped into the picture as was a fresh cast of characters. Instead of longhaired Greenpeacers carrying kittens and passing out pamphlets there were fundamentalists of a different cloth dominating the news and a different set of pictures captured the airwaves.

How I recall that image of Nixon walking with Pat and company towards a helicopter with propellers turning, waiting to whisk him off. His retirement into near obscurity marked the end of one chapter and the start of an unfamiliar order of government that I didn¹t think possible in my lifetime. But here it was­a new round of leaders carrying with them some pretty scary thoughts. This wasn¹t the ³representative² government that I grew up with. In its place was a body of spokespeople, conservatives and ideological purists, laying the groundwork for their own narrowing programs. As much as I wanted it all to go away, I knew it would not. These were intimidating folks who thought little of putting reason and science on hold. They looked decent enough, with their trimmed hair and silk ties. The only problem was they all seemed to have sprung up (but from where?) and settled unannounced and comfortably in the same creationist camp. On television and the Internet their calculating, self-serving ideas were winning backers. Those who didn¹t uphold their positions were determinedly, and purposefully, removed from the mainstream. Even when I tried to turn away from the radio and newspapers, whisperings of Armageddon, which I first considered a practical joke, took on a life of its own. Worse yet, the seeds of the right were too quickly at my doorstep and the thought stayed with me that they might never go away.

But there they were, Washington¹s leaders walking abreast with clergy and military brass, stride for stride. In a blink what I once mistook for democracy had turned into a ping- pong match between oligarchy and theocracy with all the trappings of the Trinity and the Rapture. As much as I tried not to look, it was either the Brass, the Stars and Stripes or the Bible that kept cropping up. In at least one headline during the week, there was food aplenty for any Righteous Revivalist Wannabee to feed upon.

Incredible as it seems, it only took one Reagan and two Bushes to turn too many heartfelt Sam Irwin worshippers into backpedaling anti-Darwinians. After a few decades, Watergate was almost a blemish in most memories and Marilyn singing to John a fading wisp in the wind. Instead of Jackie and Moon landings, those of us remaining on the left had to contend with congressmen fixed on turning the Ten Commandments into our new Bill of Rights. The mainstream was becoming too much about Armageddon and not enough about social responsibility. But it wasn¹t the earth¹s center caving in or the thunderous rapture sending bolts through the hearts of non-believers that had me confused. It was the speed at which religion and patriotism had engulfed an entire country and how slow we were to respond.

So what was in the minds of Americans that a GE spokesperson and favorite aristocrat among the wealthy two percent, could so envelop the rest of us? Like everyone, I watched a genial grandfather with too much makeup lift commonality to ridiculous heights. Reagan¹s rise was meteoric as the press and everyone around me were endeared to his jocularity and comfort and ease. While the testimonies were almost unprecedented, I remained aghast at how a mild sexagenarian could so perfectly be orchestrated by some very expensive money-handlers. The public was practically clueless as to the machinations at work, the remarkable dexterity required to move a modicum of talent through the ranks and files of politics.

And the choreography worked. That plastic smile and conspicuously plastered appearance won over veterans and housewives, radicals and conservatives alike. This new stage production was so clearly robotic, as the nation¹s most powerful leader played games at labeling his opposition "liberals" while the people laughed . . . and the news and communication bosses, tarot readers and apocryphal handlers looked the other way. The more he bashed the deeper his popularity grew. There was a startling connectivity between this lionized ideal and a populace that would embrace its hero worship into the future.

Here signaled the beginnings of religion in democracy and a separation between the haves and have nots that has remained in place. With Reagan, America could not embrace hard enough its judicious champion. I was certainly out of the loop regarding his positions on guns, abortion, war, the elderly, fiscal and social responsibility. Nor did I see eye to eye with the rest of America. The press could not find enough accolades for this Hamiltonian pedigree. The majority of Americans perceived nothing unjust in Washington turning its eyes from the homeless, the poor and the less fortunate. (What¹s one person¹s problem? Well then, that¹s his problem).

Such acrimoniousness has continued to the present, although I for one believe in extending an occasional hand. I know Shacky did and would do so today for throughout his adulthood he supported deprived and orphaned children abroad. At one time he even gave a young man from India, whom I befriended at college, several suits and a few dollars with which to make a fresh start of his life. This was the sort of charitable man I once admired. If only government could emulate that same selfless spirit. If only . . . .

Today there is record-breaking charitable assistance to faith-based organizations with some very aggressive tiptoeing over the Constitution. Given the turn that our politics has taken, and the continuation of the Reagan non-conservation agenda, an argument can be deduced that our system may be giving way. Indisputably, the careful workings of our ancestors that once framed our laws and by-laws are systematically being pushed aside. Where we once built a temple to America¹s health and liberty, we now find ourselves short of carpenters and architects. Our original designers looked to a more tolerant sort of England, one that would separate and not unify church and state. It¹s difficult to even imagine Jefferson and Franklin¹s, Madison and Adams¹s reaction to a country today where pollution is loosely checked and smart ecological alternatives ignored. In 1787 our forefathers argued for smaller federal government, a government that recognized states¹ rights and sovereignty and a legislative body mindful of the affairs of its citizens. They would have certainly balked at a society where the exact power they strove to distribute would land back into the very hands of its oligarchy. Yet in little more than 200 years that¹s the road we seem to be traveling.

Under today¹s administration, dear uncle, we are in full view of a government that openly encourages that accumulation of power against which early Americans fought. It¹s also that sort of accumulation of wealth and power that lends itself to an inevitable despotism against which Franklin warned and Jefferson challenged us to resist. If there was to be such a widespread malfeasance within the branches of government then it was the responsibility of the people to topple and remove that evil and rebuild an even stronger system out of the rubble. Is it possible that we¹re only approaching that dangerous point in our history or might we be at that juncture where drastic change is no longer an option, but an inevitability?

I know this is not the America you had in mind when you chastised me while I tried to watch Junior Gillian make that dazzling end run. You need to realize that even as a youngster I was beginning to have my doubts about the goings-on of government. I saw gasoline vapors hovering over lakes and asked why; I saw animals disappearing and hoped some ³public officials² would bring them back to life. I saw poverty in Chicago¹s streets and questioned why people simply didn¹t care. Then I witnessed that same callousness when people turned their animals loose in streets and empty parking lots, these same streets where there was crime, senseless and cruel, and people going to jail and more people going to jail and no one really giving a damn. And I still wondered why.

It¹s this same climate, Uncle, that has allowed too many, and not just from this country, to close their eyes to the environment. But it all comes back to us because we¹re supposed to be better than most. One can make a case, and a good one, that the collapse of our environment started with Reagan, and his selection of James Watt as Secretary of the Interior. Here was a man who believed it a waste of time to protect the earth¹s resources since Christ would return to earth after the last tree fell and only true believers would be lifted to heaven. This began an ideology that has festered and permeated all layers of society and advanced at an almost unchallenged pace through the ³Leave No Child Behind² administration.

All of which brings us to the present time. One has only to look at some recent legislation and James Watt is no more the culprit than all Washington put together. From backroom deals, favors, compromises and give-aways to Industry the environment has suffered irrevocably. Who could have imagined a government that would allow Homeland Security sweeping exemptions to the nation¹s environmental laws; a government that would change or withhold scientific evidence when making key decisions about wildlife protections; an administration that would try to rewrite the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts; a government that would try to eliminate vehicle tailpipe inspections, ease pollution standards for cars and SUV¹s; an administration that would want to drop all its review suits against polluting coal-fired power plants and open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling in America¹s last pristine region?

It¹s not that I don¹t wish to believe what you firmly upheld, but even you and your fertile nationalism may think twice about lowering the flag a notch or two. I still embrace a Constitution and every last Bill of Rights. I still want to believe that somewhere out there exists a brick road that leads to green frontiers without congested air and chemicals choking our biggest river from Minnesota to Louisiana. I want to hope that there the doors to a different type of exploration, with clean technologies, will open. It need not be Fourierian or experimental. It needs only to be brave and decent where words are not empty, but convey rational systems and values. If we are so fortunate we might even learn how to coexist with culture. Art and business need not be joined at the hip, but maybe they could overlap now and then, working toward a more nurturing balance. We¹re going to have to work at keeping snowmobiles out of Yellowstone and think harder about the inhumanity of aerial shootings of wolves and polar bears from helicopters. When the desire to live cleanly and healthily takes precedence over illogical propositions and hidden attachments to bills that will further poison our landscape and skies, then I might scream at the top of my lungs what you screamed to me at Soldier Field on that bitter cold Sunday afternoon. Until that time, I¹ll be on the other side fighting for the freedoms and passions you once held so dear.

Gary Simon did his doctoral work at Wayne State University in the early 1970s and today owns an advertising agency in New Orleans.