A long night’s journey into day

I’m a retired Asheville High School teacher who misses pontificating. I also wonder about the validity of some of the ideas I passed along to the younger generation during my years in the classroom.

I was born at the opening of World War II and was raised “ducking and covering” during the opening days of the Cold War. I was educated to believe, with my entire being, that the United States of America was not only the greatest nation on earth but the one shining beacon of freedom and decency for all of mankind. I saw my country and countrymen as heroes who fought the good wars with the sword of right as well as might. As a member of the U.S. Air Force from 1956-60, just standing and saluting as the band played our beloved national anthem and Old Glory passed in review would make me tear up.

Father Knows Best and Ozzie and Harriet Nelson — with sons David and Ricky — were held up as images of the ideal American family. Beaver Cleaver was a shining example of how all boys grew to manhood in America. I wonder why it never occurred to me to ask why my family and the ones around me never came close to looking like these television role models we were fed by corporate America?

As time has ticked away, I’ve come to see this idealized belief in my country as a bit naive. In the mid-’60s, working as a very junior reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I witnessed Dixie tear itself asunder; once again, I felt the tears run down my cheeks as I fully comprehended the injustice I saw around me. I saw the looks of cold, mean hatred etched on the faces of many of my fellow white Southerners, and I was ashamed. On the other hand, I also saw heroic black Southerners standing tall — not with hatred but with courage — and demanding what the Constitution of the United States of America had promised them. Those Southerners made me feel good about humanity.

As we became more involved in Vietnam, I fully believed that where the president commits our troops our flag is also committed, and it was my duty as a patriot to support those troops. One afternoon when I was working in the newsroom of the Asheville Citizen, an elderly lady from Madison County sat at my desk, clutching the telegram announcing the death of her only child in that far-off country. I matter-of-factly took down the information for the “obit” for that young boy. Pulling a wallet-sized picture from her purse, the woman said as she handed it to me, “Please take care of this picture; it is the only one I have of my son.” As she got up to leave, she looked at me and said quietly, “If I only knew why.”

In the ensuing decades, I have witnessed the growing cancer of greed and rampant materialism enveloping our nation. I watched with cynical humor as men of the clergy — while busy raising millions of dollars — preached one thing and practiced quite another. With concern and outright horror, I have watched a medium that I was so proud to be a part of turn from news to sensationalism and pure gossip.

I also saw an art form that I taught with joy at Asheville High slowly evolve from holding a mirror up to humankind to producing works of violence and soft-core pornography. And because I believe that art reflects the society that produces it, I now have to ask: Is this what we have become?

I won’t even discuss what I’ve come to call “hyphenated Americanism.” We are not Something-or-Other-Americans, we are all just Americans, and it doesn’t matter whether we were granted citizenship yesterday or our ancestors arrived generations ago — willingly or unwillingly.

Worst of all, however, was the growing certainty that I was getting the government I deserved.

The first president in my lifetime was FDR, a patrician who worked diligently to save his own class — even though they hated him for it. By accident, he was followed by “The Buck Stops Here” Truman — the first of the Presidential Wars presidents. Then came Eisenhower, a military man who’d never voted in his life until he picked himself for president. Another New England patrician, Kennedy, followed him.

How I believed in that beautiful, vibrant young couple moving into the White House! And as a true believer, I even accepted the extended Royal Family that moved in with them. After Kennedy was shot — by God alone knows who — I got that Texas “man of the people” who misled himself and me into our Second Presidential War.

Richard Nixon, my next chosen leader, heroically ended that bloodbath in Vietnam “with honor” almost four years later, and I elected him again. Thereupon followed the appointed president, Ford, for whom I can truthfully claim no responsibility.

Then came the peanut farmer from Georgia. Jimmy Carter asked me to believe yet again and I did, although I began to wonder what was going wrong when our entire embassy staff in Iran was taken hostage and held for a year.

Jimmy was followed by my favorite of all presidents, old trickle-down Ronnie. I rejoiced when our hostages were released from captivity just as Ronnie raised his hand on the Capitol steps and promised to defend the Constitution of the United States. It never occurred to me that there might be some connection between those two events.

Then came yet another New England patrician, George I — defender of that poor hapless nation in the desert, Kuwait. I stood and cheered as our military, in its full might, restored democracy to that desert kingdom while ensuring the freedom of all the other desert kingdoms in that oil-derrick-decorated landscape. That’s the kind of Presidential War I really appreciate: one that lasts only a few days while my military kicks the evil ones in the rump. Particularly when I get to watch it on television, from the opening bomb to the closing shouts of glorious victory.

And then there was Bill. I danced the night away and kept “thinking about tomorrow” at his inaugural. I rallied to his and his delightful wife’s defense when fundamentalist preachers began raising yet more millions of dollars, which they used to accuse the young couple of uncounted misdeeds. Under Bill, Presidential Wars got downright confusing and hard for me to track.

Finally, integrity was restored to the White House with the advent of George II, crown prince of George I, and his lovely and lively first lady, Laura. I suppose I have a penchant for New England patricians, even when they like to wear cowboy hats. Now I can hardly wait for George II to launch yet another Presidential War, which I hope will be as well produced on television as his daddy’s was.

I won’t catalog the assorted idiots and buffoons I have elected to Congress and the state legislature down through the years — it would be too exhausting (and depressing).

But now, in my dotage, as my mind begins to slip away, it occurs to me that somewhere along the line I’ve allowed “government of the people, by the people, for the people” to “perish from the earth.” How could I possibly have sat by and silently watched my government slip into the hands of scoundrels and thieves?

Silently I witnessed a growing military establishment getting out of hand and no longer under control of the civilian population.

I kept silent — and so did the president — as we witnessed the deaths of thousands of our fellow citizens at the hands of an unnamed and unknown disease.

I kept silent as I saw the growing outrages committed by our police forces against my fellow citizens in the name of “law and order.”

I kept silent as I watched the federal government grow, because I believed it benefited me. But it has now grown beyond anything I can imagine or hope to control.

I kept silent and wore political badges and labels that have long since become meaningless.

After all the years of silence, is it too late for me to reclaim the idea of individual freedom and responsibility? Should I now apologize to those young people I taught to love freedom and honor our glorious past? Did I grow up believing in myths — and, worse yet, did I teach those myths to young minds as truths?

In my life, I have traveled from unbridled idealism to reluctant cynicism. Now I have to ask myself: Where is the leadership? What happened to those great Americans who pointed the way to the future, teaching us to love freedom and pay any price to maintain that great gift? Did they, too, disappear into some cloud of myth?

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One thought on “A long night’s journey into day

  1. Nikkie Friedman

    Is this MY Earl Willis from Asheville High? The writing (which I thought was fantastic, btw) sure does sound like you.
    If so, HELLO EARL! I miss you and I hope that you are well. I am living in New York with my wonderful family and would LOVE LOVE LOVE to hear from you!
    Nikkie Michael (now Friedman)

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