My Country, ‘Tis Of Greed

I don’t recognize my country anymore, and on this Independence Day, I’m having a hard time celebrating what it’s become.

When my family was in the military in the 1960s—which is to say my father was a commander in the Navy at that time and we packed up and moved about every two years when he got his new orders—my sisters and I did not know that he was an important cog in the most powerful war machine on the face of the earth.

We only knew we had to make friends again, and yet again, because we were going to be attending a new school. For me, that meant developing a gregariousness I likely otherwise wouldn’t have and learning early in my life that there were all kinds of people in all kinds of places who looked different ways and spoke different ways and had a wide range of ideas, experiences and attitudes toward work, education, family, and friendships.

My parents and me and my two sisters lived in Florida, California, Kansas, and—from 1965 to 1969, during the height of the Vietnam War—on the Roosevelt Roads Naval Station in Ceiba, Puerto Rico, where our father was in charge of a whole squadron of pilots and planes known as the VC-8 Redtails. In a school staffed by teachers from the U.S. laboring under contract, we learned Spanish and sang songs like “De Colores” alongside classmates from most of the 50 states. It was funny hearing a boy from Arkansas attempting to roll his Rs.

We rode horses purchased from puertorriqueños for less than a hundred dollars each and spent our extracurricular time down at the stables learning the fine art of the curry brush and the pleasure and satisfaction of caring for a creature other than ourselves. When we ventured off the base, usually for a quick trip into San Juan or Ponce for a horse show, we saw skin darker than our own and heard the rapid melodic trills of a language we loved that was not English. When we were home, we ate a rice and beans recipe my mother had been given by another officer’s wife who’d picked up the ingredients at the local commissary, where we could get our groceries at reduced prices because we were a military family and that was one of the perks the Pentagon provided us.

What I understood about life back then was limited by a child’s-eye view of things, a not-quite-comprehensive lens that meant I was fortunate to have two good parents who gave us a middle-class upbringing, though I was blissfully unaware we had any particular advantage over other kids who grew up in urban settings beset by drugs and poverty and family members who were strung out, mostly absent or even dead. We had money, but not an inordinate amount—for instance, I was denied my dream of owning a coffee-colored suede jacket with fringe on the sleeves, my wish for my 14th birthday, after we’d returned to the states and I was a tempestuous teenager always on the lookout for openings to get my own way.

In 1973, my father retired from the Navy. We were now “civilians,” unaccustomed to the wily ways of white-collar executives inhabiting corner offices behind mahogany desks in tenth-floor suites in downtown office buildings. We didn’t know the transfer of a skill set honed over 20 years in the military would be so difficult for our dad when he attempted re-employment. We didn’t know my sisters and I would turn out to be the last generation that got away with not having to bear crushing post-college debt. We didn’t know my mother would get Alzheimer’s and her care would decimate my father’s savings and that in the end she’d have to go on Medicaid, a program that may well see extinction before we ourselves wind up in nursing homes as members of the ass-end of the Baby Boomers generation.

We didn’t know some of our leaders in Congress would begin to look like Scrooge McDuck, swimming around in personal pools of gold bullion while many of their constituents struggle to pay the rent. We didn’t know a pervasive “I’ve got mine, so screw you” attitude would manifest itself in a federal budget that severs the social safety net while boosting defense spending to astronomic levels. We didn’t know America could begin to look like two nations divided against each other, greed versus need, a place where We The People wonder what will become of us in our hearts, souls, and spirits.

I don’t recognize my country anymore, and on this Independence Day, I’m having a hard time celebrating what it’s become.

Nancy Townsley’s work has most recently been published in Brain, Child Magazine, Elephant Journal, NAILED Magazine, The Riveter Magazine, and Bleed, a literary blog from Jaded Ibis Press. She lives on a floating home on the Multnomah Channel in Scappoose, Oregon.

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