As Americans prepared for the Statue of Liberty centennial in New York and the celebration of national independence on July Fourth, Maclean’s Senior Writer Bob Levin drove through the U.S. Midwest to take the pulse of the patriotic heartland. His four-day, 880km drive along U.S. AO—with stops to talk to dozens of people along the way—stretched west from Wheeling, W. Va. across Ohio, Indiana and Illinois to St. Louis, Mo. Levin ’s report:
Even before the Independence Day weekend, American flags were everywhere. They flew from banks, schools, fast-food restaurants, beside white frame houses and a red barn with “Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco” painted across its broadside. There was even one on the shirtsleeve of Dennis Baker’s blue policeman’s uniform. In fact, Baker, the 35-year-old deputy marshal of Knightstown, Ind., said that reverence for the flag was so ingrained in him that, as a boy, when the local television station would sign off by playing The Star-Spangled Banner, he would instinctively stand up. Not far down the road, at the national headquarters of the American Legion in Indianapolis, Lee Hardy understands such sentiments.
As the Legion’s Assistant Director for Americanism, his job is to ensure that flags across the country are displayed according to the proper etiquette —for instance, not in bad weather unless an all-weather flag is used. Hardy offers this assessment of the flag’s importance: “It’s the culmination of the feeling that America is the country in the world.”
Trauma: That was the message all along U.S. 40, a road that rolls out of the green hills of eastern Ohio on to vast flatlands of soybeans and waist-high corn. At the Knights of Columbus hall in Zanesville, Ohio, a truck driver glanced up from a bottle of Michelob beer to describe America as “the best place there is,” and his companion added,
“You tell me one that’s better.” It is a kind of litany of national confidence and pride, one that seems to be recited less as a boast than as a simple statement of fact. The sentiment has survived such traumas as Vietnam, Wa-
tergate and the Iranian hostage crisis. And in Ronald Reagan’s America resurgent nationalism seems to be rising as fast as box-office revenues from Rambo-style movies in which American heroes not only flex their muscles
but always win. Staff Sgt. Glenn Chase, a National Guard recruiter in Indianapolis, said that when he visited schools after the U.S. bombing attack on Libya in April, he was surrounded by students asking: “Are you guys going to Libya? Can I do that?”
In one sense, the region’s patriotism
is rooted in the history of U.S. 40 itself, once known as the National Road. The country’s first federal highway, it extended some 960 km from Cumberland, Md., to Vandalia, 111., and carried a steady stream of covered wagons heading west into what was then known as the Northwest Territory. According to turn-of-the-century U.S. historian Frederick Jackson Turner, this settlement process transformed Germans, Irish, Scandinavians, Scots, French and other pioneers into a new, energetic, inventive nationality: the American. “From 1800 to 1850,” adds Lorie Porter, a history professor at Muskingum College in New Concord, Ohio, “a mystical concept of the United States was being born. People began to see it as a place where you could rise to your potential. They really believed the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal.”
Ethnic: The National Road’s heyday as the “Main Street of America” is long past, and the sleeker Interstate 70, which parallels it, now carries the brunt of traffic. But descend ants of the original settlers are still the core of the area’s population, and they are a decidedly American lot. S. Anne Burcham’s family, originally from the British Isles, came west in the early 1800s. Burcham, 40, grew up in Richmond, Ind., and now directs the Wayne County Historical Museum there. But when she lived for two years in Newark, N.J., people repeatedly asked her, “What are you?” Explained Burcham: “They wanted to know my ethnic background. But that was very unfamiliar to me. We just think of ourselves as Americans.” Even the area’s new immigrants are catching on quickly. Wei Yi Tsang, 19, whose family emigrated from Korea four years ago and now runs the Mandarin Gardens restaurant in Richmond, said of his new homeland: “It’s a great country. I’m proud of it.” Americans will express that pride on July Fourth, the 210th anniversary of
the signing of the Declaration of Independence, with bursts of fireworks in towns all along U.S. 40. In Cambridge, Ohio, with a population of 13,900, the local American Legion has budgeted $3,450 to produce the rockets’ red glare. But such displays of patriotism are evident more than just once a year. Along the old National Road, some courthouse lawns are adorned with cannons or tanks and, in Brazil, Ind., with a U.S. Air Force jet. And then there is East Germantown, Ind., which, during the First World War, lest anyone doubted its patriotism, renamed itself Pershing after American Gen. John Joseph Pershing. Today, as if to please everyone, its welcome sign reads, “East Germantown or Pershing.” During the Vietnam War, however,
the patriotism of some American citizens was closely questioned. One former Ohio state trooper from Zanesville recalled being summoned to help quell antiwar rioting on two Ohio campuses. “Some people forgot what patriotism was,” said the ex-policeman, 53. “Students were screwed up in the head. They were attempting to tear something down that it took many years to build up. I referred to them as animals.” Dave Scott, 34, who as a boy in the 1950s watched white-robed Ku Klux Klansmen march in his home town of Greenfield, Ind., said the town disapproved of 1960s-style turbulence. “There were a lot of ‘America: Love It
or Leave It’ bumper stickers,” said Scott, now a writer-photographer for Greenfield’s Daily Reporter. “It was pretty much of a redneck area.”
Today’s students are clearly a different breed. The change, said Bob McAllister, 55, principal of the sole high school in Vandalia, 111., has been gradual, and when the school started a Veterans’ Day program three years ago he was still skeptical of how students would react. But it proved popular and McAllister concluded, “There seems to be a resurgence of patriotism.”
Dream: But while Americans do not hesitate to reaffirm their love of country, some disillusionment remains. It is as though the idealized nation their ancestors forged and fought for has, through the faults of the American
people and their leaders, failed to deliver on all its promises. For Elizabeth Starner, a housewife from Altamont, 111., the country is rife with immorality, rampant divorce and unmarried couples living together. “The United States is said to be a Christian nation,” said Starner, 46, and a mother of three children. “But a lot of people don’t have the faith in God that our nation was founded on.” Bill Dittamore, 67, the owner of a farm equipment company in Teutopolis, 111., is distressed by the crisis in family farming and by what he sees as the government’s too lenient treatment of lawbreakers. Said Dittamore: “I think
we’ve become a country of pacifists and appeasers.”
Steven Jones has another perspective altogether. A black air force veteran, economics student and assistant to the pastor at New North Street African Methodist Episcopal Church in Springfield, Ohio, the 31-year-old Jones said that, despite America’s professed adherence to principle, it is too often on the wrong side of world issues. “When you think of the American way,” said Jones, “you think of power and might—but you don’t necessarily think of what’s right.”
Being black in America, Jones added, can also be a major obstacle to success—but other blacks disagree. Sitting on her porch across the street from the New North Street church,
Linda Higgenbotham, 41, a drugstore employee, said, “The whole system tells everyone—black, white, orange or pink—to be the best you can be. You can be whatever you want in the United States if you really want it.” That was, and still is, the American Dream. And whatever its limitations, its message remains powerful and pervasive across the American heartland and the rest of the 50 states. On July Fourth, with flags and fireworks flying and a bumper crop of corn coming up, no one will convince most Midwesterners that theirs is not, after all, the greatest country in the world.
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