The day we celebrate—and worry

“Just wanted you all to know it’s official: They have counted all the provisional votes, and I have won.”

The call came to my wife and me on Nov. 11 from our son Grier, who’d been a candidate for the North Carolina House of Representatives from a district in Raleigh. Until then, he’d insisted that we not celebrate, even though newspapers had already reported his win and his opponent had graciously conceded.

But Grier wanted every vote counted before, as he put it, “we uncorked the champagne.”

Nov. 11 may have been the very best time for our family to celebrate; it’s a special day for us for many reasons.

First of all, it’s Veterans Day. And just before launching his recent political campaign, Grier completed several years of military service as a lawyer in the Army JAG Corps.

In fact, two years ago, he spent Nov. 11 packing his gear and saying goodbye to his wife and week-old daughter. Early the next morning, I drove him down to Fort Bragg on his way to a six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan.

Nov. 11 is also St. Martin’s Day, a holiday observed more in Europe than in the United States. In some parts of Europe, it’s a family feast day that marks an early beginning of the Christmas season — kind of like Thanksgiving, except that the traditional bird is a goose rather than a turkey.

St. Martin was a soldier too. And according to legend, on one very cold day he came upon a beggar who had no coat and was freezing. St. Martin took off his own cloak, cut it into two parts, and gave one to the beggar.

Nov. 11 is also my father’s birthday. My son Grier Martin has the same name as his grandfather, who before his sadly premature death served for many years as president of Davidson College. All my life, my major claim to fame has been that I am “Grier Martin’s son.” From now on, though, I’ll be known as “Grier Martin’s father.”

Sometimes, the Martin family gathers on Nov. 11 to celebrate my father’s birthday and St. Martin’s Day — cooking a goose, sharing a meal, and counting our many blessings. This year, though, the goose stayed in the freezer. There was just too much going on, and besides, we’d been told to wait before uncorking the champagne.

But the next time we gather on that day, we’ll have the memory of Grier’s election victory to add to the list of things that make it a special one for us.

Beneath our pride, however, lie worries. Although we were proud of Grier when he left for Afghanistan two years ago, the obvious dangers made us uneasy. And now, as he embarks on his political service, we know he faces yet another set of dangers. They’re quite different from the ones a soldier confronts in a hostile situation, of course, but they are no less real.

Sometimes, the pressures on elected representatives get to even the most well-meaning public servants, who will inevitably be pushed to “make deals” in order to help their constituents or gain support for things they believe are important. Potentially compromising situations lurk around every corner. Here are some of the questions I would pose to Grier (or anyone contemplating public service):

• Raising money for the next campaign: Who are you going to ask? What might they expect in return?

• Dealing with pressures from your constituents: What do you do when they demand your support for things you know are not in the state’s best interest?

• Maintaining a proper sense of humility: Surrounded by people who are courting you in order to win your support for their programs, how do you maintain a humble spirit of service?

• Misleading campaign ads aimed at you: Can your reputation survive the intense scrutiny and unjust attacks on your character that will come every time you’re involved in a close campaign?

• And finally, losing: Can you deal with it? Just as even the best basketball teams generally lose some games en route to an NCAA championship, it’s a hard fact that most ambitious politicians lose an election or two before their careers are over. Winning may not be everything, but losing is hard — and to some, it is devastating.

Grier probably ranks among the first returnees from military service in Afghanistan and Iraq to win the opportunity to serve via elective office. But there will surely be others whose experiences in the military move them — like St. Martin and Grier — toward public service. And those who shoulder the great risks that accompany either military or political service should always be in our prayers. Accordingly, on every future Nov. 11 — which is, in a sense, our personal Thanksgiving Day — our family will render them our special gratitude.

[D.G. Martin is the host of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs on Sundays at 5 p.m.]

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