In our modern era, Americans identify patriotism as that feeling that hugged the United States after the loss of the twin towers, the destruction at the Pentagon, and the death of those who said, “Let’s Roll,” before crashing into a Pennsylvanian field. But in my younger lifetime, I recall forces of nationalism with more historic fervency and in response to positive forces and sentiments rather than the collective sorrow that came at the start of the twenty-first century. National pride equated to joy in being part of a country, not fighting against anger or segmentation in the name of a political perspective. Ah, the naiveté of youth.
In the early 1980s, I remember our country celebrating the release of the hostages from Iran. Being young, I cheered at the unveiling of the restored Statue of Liberty as a visible symbol reflecting our internal hopes. Another icon, which came chugging into my childhood – one I remember stopping in our town – the American Freedom train, which circumnavigated our nation celebrating its bicentennial. Nineteen-Seventy-Six marked a moment of my childhood offering my first hint of country affection and national affiliation. In hindsight, maybe that locomotive symbolized the caboose of an era which began at Promontory Point (see Ponies and Locomotives from January 2012) and ended in a circle-tour of people craving a memory of time which long since headed down the track.
Four decades on, I recognize the difference between patriotism and nationalism, a fine line to be certain, which makes embracing country pride far more challenging than just looking at a shiny new torch lifted above the Hudson River or listening to a steam engine clickety-clacking into the distance. I’m still patriotic, I’m thankful I live in the United States, and I’m jaded. I look for a love of country in other places. Now I find the most sense of Americanism in the natural beauty of the land almost more than any human endeavor.
I guess my adult notion of patriotism makes me more America The Beautiful than God Bless America. The Stars and Stripes Forever doesn’t stir my spirit like This Land Is You Land. But I tingle at the National Anthem before a baseball game, and every time I drive across a state line, especially if it’s over a bridged river. I get giddy when I see a bald eagle in the wild, when I read a letter written from a Civil War battlefield, and when anyone is served a piping hot bowl of freedom scooped out of our country’s melting pot. And although its value may only be a mere twenty-five cents, when someone hands me a few coins in change and it includes a bicentennial quarter, I want to set it aside and not spend it because in my heart and my memory, it’s worth a lot more.