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Stephen Herrington Headshot

Living and Dying American

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On December 20th my oldest friend had a fatal heart attack at 57 years of age on his farm near Houston. I had lost track of him over the years. I followed the siren's song of early Silicon Valley, while James Winborn Turner married young, stayed in Texas and built a life with what I hear was an honest measure of joy and heartache, labor and love. His nickname was "Win."

That nickname, "Win," has perilous irony, both for he the named and the parents that feared so little the chagrin of the ancient and jealous gods that they saddled a son with that name. It reminds me, is emblematic, of a time when people such as his father Dr. Sam Turner and mother "Tex," and the greater society all could not conceive of any fate that was not at their command. Through will and work they could accomplish anything, put men on the Moon. They could always "win" with the assurance of indomitable skill, American Know How. The world was their oyster to be laid open and savored in endless supply. Indeed, they did put that Armstrong man on the Moon the summer after my last class in high school.

Dr. Sam told me once, out of his son's hearing, that he did not care what it was "Win" chose for employment, ditch digger or doctor, as long as he was the best ditch digger or doctor there was. This is pride. Maybe it does goeth before the fall. Dr. Sam, it seems, believed that life was, immutably, a meritocracy. That is the only way it could be to any of the sane. "Win" became an engineer.

Dr. Sam had reason to believe. He was of Brokaw's "Greatest Generation." They had grand parents who had seen the Civil War. They suffered the Great Depression and worked their way out of poverty and through a global war that threatened the extinction of freedom and reason with a new dark age. They put a man on the Moon. They started the Vietnam War with every expectation of some unimagined victory. All was bold dreams and promise, opportunity or empathy and a hand up for the right color and class, others need not apply. Communism easily supplanted Fascism as the bugaboo of foreign origin. We were taught to duck and cover in elementary school so the super accelerated furnace hot winds of nuclear annihilation could not touch us. There was a demonstrator atom bomb shelter sitting in the playing field of my junior high. We played in it, some kissed a girl for the first time in it next to the manual pump that was intended to bring in non irradiated air from the incinerated surface. Either blinded by hubris or giddy in our brinkmanship, we relished our future.

I loved these people, "Win," Dr. Sam and "Tex," and the time was golden. I mean no disrespect when I say that within a few short years, this bright and confident and powerful and somewhat surreal society began to fall apart.

In 1964 "Win" shot me in the throat. The picture of the muzzle blast and the look of surprise on his face are tattooed in my mind. He said, "Oh shit." From the day of that accident, I have lived on borrowed time. It liberated me from the staid expectations under which my contemporaries labored. The z-plasty on my throat is a talisman protecting me from the temptations and sanctions of normalcy. In the mirror, shaving, I see evidence that I have no right to be here and no obligation to stay. It was a strange and complex gift given to me and "Win's" hand is the one that gave it.

This often puts me on the outside, looking in. As Vietnam poisoned the relations of Brokaw's "Greatest Generation" with their children, and the oil shocks of the Yom Kippur War slashed a gaping hole in American confidence, I sailed confidently forward under Dr. Sam's belief system. America is a meritocracy. From what does merit accrue but principles?

Conservatism was a banked fire then. The New Deal had resurrected America from the carnage of the Robber Barons and Laissez Faire economic comedians. Dr. Sam, "Tex," "Win" and I were all Republicans then. But then a typical Republican was several degrees to the left of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Nixon was an aberration, a transition. It took Reagan and Ayn Rand to really define the world in which we now live, a world in which, sorry Dr. Sam, merit is no longer of value. There is nothing in which to have pride above monetary wealth in a Reagan world. If any Reagan Republican has read this far he may find the qualification of monetary to wealth imponderable. Reagan prognosticated the horrors under which we now suffer. Only to Reagan, these horrors were virtue and he advocated their foment rather than, as Eisenhower, warning of them. Could a more perfect evil be defined than bad is good, good is evil?

It is a sad irony somehow, closing a circle, that my friend when these events began to unfold, the self immolation of our nation, should die in a time that promises a renewal of the values to which we both often swore allegiance in our youth. Not to the rule of reason or law nor even the founding document of our nation but just to the nation and the unswerving compass bearing to which its most celebrated virtues always seemed to point. It was unspoken, assumed, understood that we held allegiance to high principles even if we could not fully enunciate them.

"Win" and I formed a pact to join the Marines and fight in Vietnam: a youthful indulgence as it turns out. Neither of our families would countenance it, both our fathers having served in WWII. I imagine the conversations in a hundred thousand households have been similar since 9/11.

We love the flag and more love the nation for which it stands. But times have tested not that love but have tested and twisted that for which it stands. It has more become allegiance to that for which it once stood and could stand again.

Vietnam may well have been ill advised, even a dark product of a profit hungry military industrial complex as Eisenhower warned against. But even at that time the principles by which we judged our conduct at home and abroad were largely intact as passed down from the founding. It took something more sinister by far than a mere global war or mutual assured destruction to undermine the soul of America. It took a profound evil. It took an evil more subtle, more elusive and unidentifiable than any we have ever faced as a people.

After thirty years during which the American was supplanted in our own and the world's view by caricatures of the political extremes, it has become clear that the enabler in our decline was us. We listened to and believed in phantasms concocted to deceive and were deceived. We are at fault, for all the evil that there ever was has always been there, just less heeded. As we, one by one, joined forces with it, we simply did not want to hear about it. Denial was the staple du jour. If one was not succeeding, it was his own fault even as all others did not succeed. It was a full blown Calvinist spiritual self-blame cataclysmic meltdown of a great nation for the sake of corporate profits and the egos of a few dozens of right wing columnists. And there is not a soul among us or them that ever really believed in any of the Trickle Down or Shareholder Value or Democratization or Preemptive War. We just found a way to deny better and faster every day than the day before.

In all these years we went finding less and less with each new dawn of the America in who's values we were steeped. I wish that "Win" could have lived to see a resurrection of a country that could have had respect for the best ditch digger there ever was.

As the world greets Obama as the President with optimism and high expectations, it is my hope that our nation will reflect on what it is in us that has changed so that he has been our choice. I hope that we consider the full extent of what it is we are rejecting and what we are embracing and can live with both. We can and should have learned that the nation is irrelevant except to the extent to which upholds the principles for which it stands. And, we should have learned the necessity of being able to enunciate those principles and account for our performance in abiding by them.

Finally, my hope is that "Win" felt the optimism of this new dawn after so many years of darkening and cold. Bless you "Win", in that you might finally have had a dawn in anticipation of the 20th of this January that was warmer and on which you could feel stronger and see a start back from this strange surrounding that we once knew as home.

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