Let me be the last to wish you a happy new year. If I’m the first, then you don’t get around much.
I’ve never had this many reservations about a new year. As a former local resident, Bette Davis, is credited as saying in one of her movie roles: “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
I find myself avoiding the news as we edge our way into 2017, seeking solace in sports, history or even true crime documentaries when I choose to watch television. I guess that’s a carry-over from the divisiveness of the presidential and congressional campaigns where nobody had anything good to say about anybody else.
It is the first time I’ve wondered, at the start of a new year, whether we, as Americans, are going to have each other’s back when threatened by forces far greater than we’ve already seen. I may be wrong, but it seems that mass murdering terrorism which reared its ugly countenance on Sept. 11, 2001, will become even more of a menace on our own turf over the next few years. It’s amazing to me that our homeland security has been so effective over those intervening 15 years under the administrations of two different presidents from two opposing political parties.
“Opposing” might not be a strong enough word for our national political climate. “Contentious,” feasting on dispute, might be a better word, because it seems we’re more dedicated to seeing the other side fail than working together for the greater good.
I was a kid during the Cold War years when the building of bomb shelters was encouraged and schools actually instructed us on what to do when nuclear bombs were dropped on our homeland. Knowing that all human existence could end with the launching of missiles from the respective “Super Powers” was not a reassuring thing for a kid to ponder.
The same threat exists today, but we have come to depend on rational leaders understanding that it is better to live in disharmony than not to live at all. Fortunately, neither ISIS nor Al Qaeda is a Super Power.
I think one of the strengths of being American is the belief that no matter how bad things get everything will turn out all right. We are the eternal optimists, and it comes from a combination of religious faith and a sense of entitlement that we are somehow the anointed global caretakers and protectors of the downtrodden.
Believe it or not, I’m trying to put a positive spin on what lies ahead by remembering what we have endured in the worst of times.
There could have been no worse times for Americans than the Civil War when we were actually killing each other off over whether it was right to hold other human beings in bondage to further the financial interests of a select group of landowners and businessmen. Okay, it was more complicated than that, but it was clearly the worst of times in our country’s history in terms of the carnage it wrought on our own soil. It was capped by the assassination of one of our greatest Presidents and too many years of racial unrest and violence.
We survived and somehow thrived.
The end of the Civil War and the stock market crash that ushered in a decade-long depression was an interval of only 64 years. Between those mileposts was our year-and-a-half formal commitment to the hostilities of World War I (1917-18) costing us 116,500 American lives, 53,400 of them in combat. One generation lived through the War to End All Wars, so named because we never wanted to experience such horrible butchery again, and an economic disaster. Imagine going off to war at 20, surviving that and then, at the age of 32, finding yourself jobless and standing in line at a soup kitchen. Then it’s 10 more years of poverty and joblessness before the clouds part and the light of impending prosperity shines through.
So much for the best years of their lives.
Europe has triggered another world war by then and American boys are sacrificing their lives on foreign soil again. So the 20-year-old Doughboy is now 43, still awaiting the promise of another new year, and a spectator at another world war.
So I’ve had it pretty easy and consider myself to have lived in the best of times in the United States of America. I woke up one January day in Vietnam in 1968, at the age of 20, and learned that the Tet Offensive had been launched. There were a few weeks of uncertainty, trying not to think about the worst that could happen. The next New Year’s morning I was an older-but-wiser college student, thanks to the GI Bill, and the future was bright again.
Hope and promise are part of the appeal of each New Year’s Day. Despite the uncertainties, I expect everything will be okay. Hey, if the ride gets bumpy, remember we’re all on this trip together.