The Menacing Stars -

You cannot imagine the gloom that hung over our house the morning of November 3, 1976 when we awoke to the news that Jimmy Carter had won the election. I was 8 years old. 

We lived in a small house across from the JP Stevens mill on Calvary Street, Greer SC. I got out of bed, wandered sleepily down the hall toward the kitchen. 

Halfway down the hall I stopped and looked in the bathroom door. My Dad was standing in front of the bathroom mirror shaving.

“Who won?” I asked, dreading the answer.

“Carter.” the word came out painfully.

In my 8 year old mind, the world was collapsing. I had never had such a sinking feeling. During the 1976 election campaign, someone made a poster of Jimmy Carter with a Jesus beard and long hair. It said “JC can save America.” Some said this proved that Jimmy Carter was the antichrist.

“Is America over?” I asked my Dad.

He turned off his shaver, looked down at me and smiled, “Oh I don’t think so.” My Dad had a smile that could heal.

Turns out he was right. In spite of the Carter administration, life in our little town went on. We fretted about communism, nuclear war, OPEC, and most of all the tree hugging hippies and liberals. Columns of smoke rising from factories or equipment were not alarming signs of environmental degradation. They were – like Mike Mulligans Steam Shovel – signs of superior strength and productivity. Why on earth would anyone want to stop America’s prowess??? We were convinced that the Soviets, the Council on Foreign Relations, and Jane Fonda were orchestrating the fall of America.

Radio commentators we listened to said that by 1984, George Orwell’s prophecy would come true in the form of a one world government run by the Soviet Union. 1984 was a few years away. We were doomed. Right on schedule. The Iranian hostages, the failed rescue operation, giving away the Panama Canal only added to the darkness.

But then by the end of 1980, it was morning again – Ronald Reagan was elected. He not only liberated the Iran hostages, but Reagan also liberated our household from my parent’s ban on TV. In a shocking reversal, my parents bought a small beige portable TV and put it on top of our refrigerator, because my Dad wanted to watch Ronald Reagan’s speeches and my Mom wanted to watch Princess Diana.  

Grown ups said Reagan was America’s new lease on life. Some said he was like King Hezekiah, the last good king before the fall of Israel. It was like God was giving America one last chance. Everyone loved Reagan.

Except for the choir director in our church.

Every Sunday he would come to the pulpit, ask us all to stand and sing. He would tell us the name of the hymn we were going to sing, and share a few details about who wrote that hymn and the (usually terrible) circumstances they were going through when they wrote it. Often he would weave in a Bible verse or some impromptu comment about the news.  

In one of the greatest buzzkills of all time, one Sunday morning he pointed out rather indelicately that he had just realized that the name Ronald Wilson Reagan consisted of three 6-letter words…

666 – get it?  

He reckoned there was a good chance Reagan was the antichrist. We couldn’t believe it. How had we missed this?

For one shining moment on that Sunday morning, the far right and the far left found themselves in perfect agreement. 

So here we are 44 years later. Hoping to find some semblance of agreement, so we can move forward.

Take a casual look through the history of our nation, and you realize being an American can be a gut wrenching experience. We are frequently – usually – deeply divided, and have been from the beginning.

I think its because we agree to be all in this together.

Being an independent nation also means being very dependent on each other. It means your choices affect me, and my choices affect you. 

And that group of us, its a very diverse group. Not all of us have grown comfortable with each other. And we won’t unless we work at it.

Like anyone, I grew up with a set of default thoughts, and a lot of them weren’t very good. Some I got from my environment, and some were just my own fault. But I learned, and grew and managed to have a really great adventure of a life. I owe a debt of thanks to a number of people I crossed paths with over the years – people who were very patient with me along the way. They calmly explained things and helped me see a better way of learning and thinking, and they were able to do it without alienating me or making me feel dumb. 

This is why one of the hardest but most important things we should be doing now is reaching out and trying to find a way to have a reasonable conversation with the people who think differently from us.

And most importantly, find something to work together on. Arguing about something in the abstract can be an endless waste of time. Work together to solve a specific challenge. When we do this, it activates a different and more productive way of thinking. 

Find a way to work together, do something important together.

That’s always been the recipe for building trust, and for building something that endures. When you work together with a group of people and create something you are all proud of, you have an unbreakable bond with them. You worked together, you learned together, and you gained a respect for each others differences. And for the talents and experience each person brought to the project. Regardless of how antagonistic or mistrustful you may have been in the beginning. This is a very important point.

Our country faces big challenges and big opportunities that deserve our best focus, our best efforts, our courage and good judgement. The work that lies ahead is going to require math, analysis, and persistent hard work. Slogans, conventional wisdom and partisanship won’t help much. We need a teamwork approach to experimentation, making mistakes, trying again. Documenting what works and what doesn’t work, taking those lessons into account and praying for wisdom.

We will need a diversity of viewpoints. That’s how we cancel out each other’s blind spots and get a more complete picture. That’s how we plan and execute more effectively. Respecting the other person is not only good for them, its actually good for YOU too. 

If you think about it, this is what freedom of speech is all about. The whole point of freedom of speech was not to have a noise chamber where everyone exercises their right to spew nonsense. It is really about guaranteeing that each of us, no matter our origins, or standing, or position, are able to share our perspective and thereby contribute to the knowledge and success of the nation.

Yes, it can be gut wrenching at times in this American life – our highs are very high, and our lows are very low. But we wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.

And the key has always been the same, from the beginning: Get with a group of people, pick a worthy endeavor, work together and do something good. My offer is, if you want to do something good, I’ll be ready to help. 


Image: Menacing Stars ballpoint pen on paper 1998 Ralph Perrine