Saturday, July 04, 2009

Happy Birthday, America

My maternal grandfather had three great loves: his family, his piano and his books.

Grandpa was a great reader. Outnumbered by his wife and four daughters, he sought refuge from all that estrogen by escaping into his library. My earliest memories of our visits to his New York apartment always included him with a book in his left hand, his index finger marking his place.

I would ask what he was reading, and sometimes he would actually tell me, which was how I came to know Edward Everett Hale's short story "The Man Without a Country."

I was probably six or seven when Grandpa described the story to me. It made an enormous impression on me. If you have never read it, I recommend it. It was published in 1863 in the Atlantic Monthly.

It's a deceptively simple story. It tells of a U.S. Army lieutenant named Philip Nolan who was tried for treason as an accomplice of Aaron Burr's back in the early days of the United States.

During his sentencing when Nolan is given a chance to assert his loyalty to the U.S., he cries out in anger: "Damn the United States. I wish that I may never hear of the United States again!"

The judge and the officers of the Court, who had all served during the American War of Independence, are horrified by Nolan's thoughtless outcry. The judge, an Army colonel, hands down the sentence: "The Court decides . . . that you never hear the name of the United States again."

For the next fifty-six years, Nolan is transferred from U.S. warship to U.S. warship, condemned never to set foot on American soil again. No officer or enlisted man is permitted to tell him one word about the U.S. Any mention of the United States is redacted from his newspapers, and he is forbidden any book that talks of his former country.

Nolan begins his sentence as an arrogant young fool scoffing at the men who condemned him. However, by the time he dies--more than five decades later--he is a changed man. He has transformed his personal quarters on the ship into a virtual shrine to the country he once renounced.

I re-read that little story every couple of years and, as we celebrate our nation's birthday once again, it seems appropriate to quote from it. The words are Nolan's:
"Youngster, . . if you are ever tempted to say a word or to do a thing that shall put a bar between you and your family, your home, and your country, pray God in his mercy to take you that instant home to His own heaven.

Stick by your family, boy; forget you have a self, while you do everything for them . . . And for your country, boy," and the words rattled in his throat, "and for that flag," and he pointed to the ship, "never dream a dream but of serving her as she bids you, though the service carry you through a thousand hells.

No matter what happens to you, no matter who flatters you or abuses you, never look at another flag, never let a night pass but you pray God to bless that flag. Remember, boy, that behind all these men . . ., behind officers and government, and people even, there is the Country Herself, your Country, and that you belong to her as you belong to your own mother. Stand by her, boy . . .
It was no accident that Hale wrote the story as the country teetered on the brink of Civil War. But as she has for over 230 years, America bled and struggled and survived those dreadful internecine days.

May God bless the United States of America and keep safe the thousands of men and women who protect her daily.

If you want to read the story yourself, go here.


Stephen Parrish said...

It was made into a movie.

Welcome back, MR.

Maya Reynolds said...

Thanks, Stephen. I didn't know that, but I'm not surprised.

It's good to be back. Hope you are well.