A Joseph Castagno short story…
The motorbike vibrated beneath them as Tra picked his way around the larger cracks in the asphalt and the occasional decaying remains of a wayward tree limb, Erie clung to him she wasn’t frightened so much as reassured by her brother’s touch. They didn’t speak, the respirators making it impossible to be heard and although nothing was alive the silence felt oppressive.
The sun glares down with a merciless stare, the heat rippling in waves across the dusty ground baking the remains of the asphalt ribbon stretching to the horizon. The gullies and cricks have long since given up leaving a patchwork of cracked and parched mud. This area once Western Illinois and neighboring Iowa – now part of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Middle States – mostly just referred to as the Middle States – had been at drought status for more than a century. The hulking figures of long dead giant oaks line the road standing as silent sentinels to the surrounding wasteland, their roots searching deep and far straining to extract the long extinct vestiges of life’s elixir. A pointless exercise only death roams amongst them biding its time.
It wasn’t so much that this area was forbidden, there just wasn’t any reason to come here, most of the remaining population was trying to survive on the receding shores of the great lakes – a daily struggle for food and water consumed most everyone. The series of increasingly deadly viruses and the predicted but still unanticipated rapid acceleration of global warming in the first half of the 21st century had finally allowed the radical progressive youth movement to wrest control of local and state governments. The dismantling of the Federal system had followed shortly after. That triumph – the banners, speeches, celebrations and euphoria of presumed equality was short lived and now a distant memory. That isn’t to say the old guard could have done better, but it hadn’t taken long for Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” syndrome to kick in; but even that lawlessness hadn’t lasted – squalor, disease, and hunger are the true lords of equality.
Tra pulls the bike into the shadow of a large oak trunk, the top had been sheared off some fifty feet up, standing he pulls a small bottle from the saddle bag handing it to Erie before taking a small sip for himself. Gently replacing it he spreads the weathered parchment on the ground, “we’re close…” he murmurs mostly to himself.
“How do you know,” she asks with wonder.
He smiles gently, “just a feeling, just a feeling,” he says standing and looking out at the desolate landscape, “it has to be here… great grandfather said it was.” Turning back to her, “come let’s go it should be a short walk that way,” he says pointing.
Erie hesitates for a moment before taking his hand, “lead on brother!” she exclaims with more bravado then she feels.
Time was no longer measured in seconds, minutes, and hours, but by the cycles of the sun and moon, and how many meals in between – but if a timepiece had existed it would have ticked off about twenty minutes. The fine dust eddies like ripples on a pond slowly refilling their footprints; Tra stops and looks back toward the bike and the silent oak hulks now small in the distance, he kicks at the dust, “it should be here…” he says forlornly.
Erie pulls on his hand, “can we go Tra, I don’t like it out here…”
Searching the horizon, he kicks the ground again, “Damn!” he exclaims hopping around on one foot.
He drops to his knees and starts frantically brushing the fine dust aside, “what is it Tra what did you find?” She asks starting to help him. The plaque is bigger than Erie, the raised letters still clearly visible, “what does it say,” she asks – reading wasn’t a survival skill and she had never learned the letters.
Tra runs his fingers over the letters murmuring to himself, testing the sounds out in is head before softly reading the inscription, “It says Christopher Columbus – Discoverer of America 1,4,9,2…”
Erie peers over his shoulder, “is that it?”
He reverently touches the letters again and, in a whisper, “a great new miracle occurred upon the earth… a new continent was discovered…” he pauses for a moment looking around carefully, “a new civilization was born… a new nation was to rise.”
“But what does that mean Tra?”
“Let me read the end,” he says not answering her question, “it was called America… It was to become the birthplace of democracy… it was God’s country…” Tra stands up brushing the fine silt off his knees. “You can never tell anyone about this, understand?” he says grabbing her shoulders.
“You’re scaring me Tra, why can’t we tell anyone? We found it just like great grandfather said we would.”
“This is from the old times E, back when great grandfather was a boy, these are the ‘Forbidden’.”
She clings to his side; every child knew the story of the ‘Forbidden’ the evil ones that caused the revolution and were responsible for the struggle life was now. “Do you think they are all here Tra?”
He looks around in wonder, “I bet they are… let’s see if we can find another!”
The sun is low in the sky and glints off the edges of two dozen unearthed plaques and statues – Tra and E are covered in a sheen of fine dust, “I like his hat…” E says looking around, “what was his name?”
“Robert E. Lee,” Tra smiles, “and the funny looking one over there is “Benjamin Franklin, and this one with the feathers is Geronimo…” Standing up he scans the horizon, “We need to get back E, don’t want to be out after dark.”
“Tra I don’t think they were evil, do you?”
He hesitates before answering, “no probably not, great grandfather always said they were just people like everyone else…”
“Can we come back?”
“Sure… but don’t tell anyone… our secret okay?”
I wrote this about fifteen years ago and have for the most part dragged it out every Fourth since then… this afternoon I’m halfway home sitting in a much to luxurious hotel room in Chicago looking out over a city I love to visit…. the staff takes good care of me here, most are immigrants working hard on this “holiday”… I take the time to listen to their stories when they are willing to share… It’s the true story of freedom – independence – the pursuit of opportunity this country still represents to those outside clamoring to come in… I think about my trip East from Seattle this past week – the beautiful country I have passed through – but also the blatant racism in so many small towns where Native Americans are treated as second class citizens – how do we embrace “…all men are created equal…” when we look the other way uncomfortably? Maybe these are questions without simple answers… I think probably, but I believe when we stop asking we have conceded point and the bright shining example we should and could be is tarnished a little more…
The sweet smells of cotton candy and caramel corn dance through the early evening air mixing with the laughter of children and the soft murmur of a thousand conversations. The sun begins its slow descent and you can feel the anticipation thrumming through the stadium. As the sharp cadence of the Color Guard recedes the lights go down and the first shells burst in a spectacular blaze of color and thunderous sound. I lean back in my seat and let the show assault my senses.
Independence Day, a day of celebration, a day of remembrance, a holiday so simple yet so fraught with the complexities of modern day politics and the ever-shifting landscape of international policy it should challenge us to examine its true meaning. In its purest form we celebrate the courage, vision, and perseverance of our forefathers. They created a new nation with their very blood and infused it with a set of ideals and beliefs that has not only become a rallying banner for democracy everywhere, but a siren song for the oppressed and downtrodden the world over. ‘We hold these truths to be self evident…” the power of these words shaped a nation and challenged the greatest imperial power of the time. They also set an inescapable responsibility for us as a people, we cannot embrace our history, our independence, carry on our annual celebrations and displays if we ignore the balance of our declaration: …” that ALL men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
We have taken this responsibility upon ourselves and have found opportunity in our history to rally to it: The fascism of the Axis powers in WWII, our vigilance against the insidious creep of Communism during the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, the Jihadist of the Middle East and in defense of those most vulnerable within our own borders. These political and military battles may represent our collective will, but the achievement of our independence was built on the personal efforts and decisions of those men and women who chose to shoulder the burden of, not only defeating our imperial masters, but also investing themselves in the creation, nurturing, and guiding of our country as it took its first steps on the path to greatness. Too often it seems that the ideals our founding fathers espoused have become the fodder for today’s self-serving political machine. It unfortunately transcends party and pollutes the purity of the democratic process. We must always remind ourselves of those “self evident truths” and understand that the preservation of them is a personal responsibility.
The final rumbles are fading into the distance and the last vestiges of smoke have cleared, chased across the horizon by a warm breeze. I take my daughter’s hand as we begin the slow walk to our car and I silently rejoice in the fact that she will grow up in the greatest country in the world. I promise myself to teach her the history of Independence Day so she can one day become the conscientious steward of our freedoms that is the legacy of our citizenship.
Photo used courtesy of Ryan Vizzions www.amodernghost.com
Author’s Note: I wrote this in August of 2017 almost three years ago, in light of today’s protest of “stay at home” orders it seems chilling prophetic… Mainstream America is having it’s “Standing Rock” moment – if you don’t see the irony you simply aren’t paying attention – Welcome to the future…
I keep coming back to this picture… I am not the “activist” type, I’m an advocate of working within the system to achieve change where possible and I support the need for law enforcement in a civil society. If I am honest with myself my activism is somewhat pedestrian, I write books with a social commentary, I’m active on social media and I vote; but do I leave the comfort of my desk, my office, my car, will you see me on the nightly news holding a placard, being sprayed by a water cannon, rinsing tear gas from my eyes – the simple answer is no.
This admission doesn’t change that I am fervently supportive of equality, I stand against oppression and have no tolerance for discrimination in any form. But the more I think about what this picture represents the more I believe it really transcends or maybe encompasses all of these. You see there is something uniquely disturbing about the blatant militarization of a domestic police force. I have heard all the arguments about “arming” up to combat the gangs, drug cartels, terror cells etcetera, and I understand all of it – but the reality is this has become the status quo – the first response posture not the strategy of last resort. Read more ›