My State of the Nation

The Presidential State of the Union address each year is meant to report on the condition of our country, as well as the President’s plans for addressing our concerns, as a nation.  Each year, I watch and listen, and each year, I wonder, “Does Washington really get it?”

What I personally believe about the answer to that question is not important.  What is important, in my opinion, is a comparative view:  Yesterday vs. Today.  By looking back, it can often cast a new perspective.  And, so, I do:

Looking Back

What was going on in the world when we — the “over 40” crowd — we children?  Let’s take a quick look at some interesting reminders:

1970: Politics & Entertainment - it's nothing new!

1970

  • Visitors to the Nation’s Capital Building can freely enter without a security check.
  • It is the height of organized protesting. The Vietnam “Conflict” dominates the news.
  • University students across the nation and other groups continue to join forces to send a message to President Nixon: End the Vietnam war.  The Kent State debacle occurs; guardsmen open fire on 1000 students, killing 4.
  • The Nation unifies as it holds its breath waiting for Apollo 13 to make its 4-day dangerous trip back to planet Earth.
  • The US Gross National Product (GNP) reaches $977 billion.  Government spending accounts for 32% of the GNP.
  • The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) is enacted.
  • Wall Street’s Dow Jones Industrial Average bottoms out at 631 and jumps 32.04 points May 27 to close at 663.20.
  • 25.5 million American’s live below the poverty line, at less than $3908.00 annual income for a family of 4.  Nearly half of those in poverty live in the South.
  • The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Partridge Family are fan favorites.

1971: The Fantasy Dream Begins

1971

  • Civil Rights — especially for women — dominate the news.
  • The first Gay Rights Bill was introduced.
  • Women in the work place are granted further protection against constructive discrimination.
  • Coretta Scott King, widow of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., founds the Center for Non-Violent Social Change in Atlanta.
  • Two Belfast women are tarred and feathered for dating British soldiers.
  • The Apollo 14 mission is successful: We watch as man takes his first step on the moon, swings a golf club, and collects rocks.
  • Wall Street’s Over-the-Counter Market becomes NASDAQ . Stocks not listed on either the NYSE or Amex have been traded since the 1920s by telephone or in person, with mimeographed price sheets left on the doorsteps of dealers as the only records of the previous day’s trades.
  • The average U.S. taxpayer gives the government $400 for defense, $125 to fight the war in Indochina, $40 to build highways, $30 to explore outer space, $315 for health activities including $7 for medical research.
  • The “floppy” disc is invented.
  • A first of its kind electronic calculator, embedded with a micro-chip, sells for $250.  It can add, subtract, and divide.
  • Cigarette advertisers can no longer use television as an advertising medium.
  • ARPANET (later called “Internet”) is publicly demonstrated, and the idea for using the @ key is introduced, something that can be done by simultaneously pressing “shift” and “2.”
  • All in the Family first airs and becomes a fan favorite.

1972: The Power of the Photo

1972

  • The first public warning about second-hand smoke is issued.
  • Federal Express is founded.
  • Watergate.
  • The Polaroid camera produces colored photographs in front of your eyes.
  • The first “film-less” camera is patented and eventually leads to digital cameras.

My Own Story & Perspective

Granddad and Me (circa 1972)

As a young girl growing up on a Midwestern farm with my grandparents, life was as perfect as perfect can be.  Although I came to live with my grandparents because of the premature death of my father, children at the age of 6 are extraordinarily resilient.

It wasn’t long after his passing that I enjoyed all that life could possibly offer for a barefoot, tanned, blond-haired girl passing her summers away playing in the bean fields, the grain bins, and amongst the farm animals.

We had one black and white television that my grandparents, my sister, and I watched after our evening supper.  We watched together as astronauts landed on the moon, as Lucy created yet another disaster, and as Bob Barker made dreams come true.

In spite of the Vietnam Conflict and nightly news reports of violent outbursts on campuses across the nation, we were reasonably sheltered from the issues affecting big cities.  Our time was spent doing what farmers and their families do on farms, and enjoying the benefits of being active with our church.

Most importantly, even for a young girl, we knew the meaning of patriotism.  There was a unity amongst us, as a nation, the likes of which we seldom experience today.  Politicians bickered, sure, but the common citizen — regardless of his political affiliation — felt secure in his membership of the “Greatest Nation on Earth.”

Every day, without fail, my grandmother made breakfast, dinner, and supper, (more commonly known today as breakfast, lunch, and dinner).  We ate each meal together after my grandfather gave thanks to the Lord for providing the nourishment our bodies needed.  Our food was organic, long before “organic” was a trend.  We didn’t think of it as organic; we thought of it as simply “good eatin’ “.

Every Saturday, I had the honor of churning the butter from the cream we skimmed off of the daily milk — milk that came directly from one of our two dairy cows.  And every Saturday evening during the summer, we listened to the sound of the ice-cream churner as we slowly made homemade ice-cream with a taste and quality that can’t be purchased at the store.  My grandmother would set my hair in rollers in preparation for church the next morning, an event for which it was worth dressing up to attend.

Once or twice a year, we’d make a trip to the local Sears or J.C. Penny’s to purchase an outfit or two.  We weren’t poor, but that was all we needed.  In fact, one standard-sized closet was big enough to hold all of the clothes belonging to Grandma, my sister, and me.

Old Country Store and Dirt Road Paradise

Every Friday, the dog and I would pile into our old pickup truck with my grandfather for a bumpy drive to an old country store on the corner of nameless dirt roads.  As my grandfather sat on the rickety wooden front porch “shootin’ the breeze” with other old timer’s, I enjoyed an ice-cold Coca-cola served in a small glass bottle while I used my bare toes to draw treasure maps in the cool, powdery dust of the dirt road.

Our icebox, as we called it, was not filled with sugary drinks like Coke.  There were no frozen meals in the freezer or packaged dinners in the cupboard.  Our bodies were not filled with the toxic “advancements” which fill our children today.  Enjoying a soda once a week was a treat, as was the tradition of making that weekly drive with my grandfather.

When I wasn’t with my grandfather, or playing with my cousins, I was with my grandmother.  In spite of all the work she had to do, I never once had to compete with a computer for her attention.  She never said, “Just a minute”, as she hurried to finish a text message or an email. I don’t ever remember, in fact, feeling as if my grandparents lacked the time to give me their undivided attention.  I wanted for nothing.

Sophisticated Electronic Games (circa 1970)

The most sophisticated electronic item I owned was the game “Operation.”  It made a buzzing sound if one wasn’t careful when extracting the bones from the game board.  Most of my play involved the sophisticated wiring of what we call “the imagination.”  I remember reading The Box Car Children series of books, then spending countless hours out in the woods on our property, pretending that I, too, lived in a box car.  Or, I was Laura Engalls, exploring the land for Indians (not Native Americans; that term didn’t yet exist).

The school I attended was called Two Mile Prairie. It schooled everyone in the area, from kindergarten on up.  Later, the older students were moved to a new high school nearby.  The principal was my Sunday school teacher; the secretary was my aunt.  And my classmates were all friends.  All of them.

By the 3rd grade, I knew the basics.  I could distinguish a star from a planet.  I could tell you all about Helen Keller and Anne Frank.  In fact, school was such an important part of our lives, we played “school” under the staircase at home, taking turns being “teacher,” the most prized role.

None of my friends suffered from obesity.  Sure, there was the occasional “chubby” kid, but no one teased or bullied.  No one.  And if anyone struggled with ADHD, bi-polar disorder, or autism, we didn’t know it.

One young boy, Junior, was full of energy and had a hard time staying in his seat in class.  Rather than sending him to the nurses office for Ritalin, or putting him in a special-needs class, the teacher simply provided her own method to accommodate his excess energy.  There was not a 20 page “IEP” that the law required her to follow but for which she would never have the time to read, much less implement.  With regard to a child’s special needs, she used her common sense, an open line of communication with the parents, and her love of teaching — and she made it work, without regulation.  Junior was well liked, and he loved school.

Once, when a girl came to school with a bruised face and tattered clothes, the “issue” was dealt with swiftly, without the need for a division of some governmental entity which can’t do anything anyway.  Instead, one of the teacher’s took the girl home with her, and the teacher’s husband confronted the parents.  The girl ended up living with the teacher for the rest of the school year, and though I don’t remember what happened thereafter, I do remember feeling as if “we” had done something right.  Something good.  No red tape.  No paperwork.  Just people caring for people in need.

There were boundaries during those days.  No one would have even considered using vulgarity in mixed company, a term which few young adults today can even define.  Sex was still sacred, and the boundless use of sexual terminology was not an accepted form of communication.  The F word was certainly used by the adults, as it has been for ages, but it never — absolutely never — was used in front of the children.

We knew our neighbors.  Even if we didn’t socialize with them, we were social toward them.  And should we hear that a neighbor was in need, the entire community pitched in to help.  There were no forms to fill out, no need to consult with the board of a formal 501(c) charitable foundation.  The helping hand that was offered was done so discretely; no one dared expect or accept a public “pat on the back.”  Neighbors helped neighbors, and that was all there was to it.  It wasn’t front page news.  It was just life as we knew it.

And, the word “family” meant something, as well.  We all knew and loved not only our first cousins, but our second and third cousins, as well.  A family get-together meant a lot of people to feed, and everyone pitched in.

The women did the cooking and cleaning while the men kept the children entertained and discussed the latest advancement in fertilizers, the state of the “war,” (later redefined as a “conflict”), or the shameful way the new generation of teen’s had no respect for authority.  Compared to today, that “lack of respect” of which they complained would make the youth of yesterday look like Boy Scouts.

If someone lost his job, his family and friends pitched in to help him find new employment right away.  No one had to be asked; they just did it.  A job, after all, was a necessity.  And the effort it took to help someone in that regard was not a “favor,” it was considered a responsibility held by anyone in the family or neighborhood.  You knew someone had your back during those days, a concept that is foreign to so many today.

There were consequences for bad behavior, a lack of responsibility, a lack of work ethic, and a lack of respect.  The consequences mattered; they acted as a strong deterrent.

Back then, unlike today, getting arrested or being charged with a crime was a big deal.   Law enforcement officers, which were once referred to as “Peace Officers,” used common sense.  Rather than tagging someone with a charge that would follow him for life, he would simply say, “If I catch you doing this again, I’m going to have to tell your father.”  Then he’d dump the beer that the 18 year old’s were caught drinking behind someone’s barn, and send them on their way.  That’s all it took, in most cases.

He was a safety officer, someone who cared about his community and respected the authority granted him.  Rogue cops were the exception, not the rule.  Police brutality was a phrase not yet scattered throughout every newspaper.  Compared to the “police state” in which we now are subjected to live, it was a simpler, gentler time; a time where you could trust the man with the badge.

It was a time in which it was the exception to the rule for a young adult to have “a record.”  Today, it is completely the reverse; it is the exception for a young adult not to have a record.

It was a time when society relied on the local small businesses.  And the local small business leaders knew their customers by name.  Credit was granted using a complex system of pen and paper titled “IOU”, and paying one’s bills was a big deal.  It wasn’t about “credit rating,” it was about reputation.

A person’s reputation mattered.  It was a big deal.  And because it mattered, people behaved in a way that was socially acceptable, for the most part.  A tarnish to the reputation could be so damaging and have such significant consequences, people of the time made sure to make decisions that were less controversial.  Unlike today — where we quickly forgive and forget things like our national leader engaging in extra-marital sex — it was a time when certain matters where unconditionally unacceptable.  It kept people, for the most part, on the “straight and narrow.”

I miss those days.

Today, nearly every teen that I know has been arrested at least once.  These aren’t bad kids; these are kids who found themselves in the path of bad cops.  There is a high percentage of public leaders who have some type of tarnish on his or her record, yet we keep them in office.  Watch a few minutes of a Jack-Ass movie, and you quickly realize that boundaries no longer exist.

A quick scan of a few Facebook profiles belonging to our youth will prove to you — if you have any question about it — that reputations no longer hold any significance.  Watch an hour of daytime talk-shows and you realize that sex, too, has lost its sacredness.  Today,  sex is entertainment.  Sex is a casual social activity, in much the same way that bowling or a game of Candy Land used to be.

Worst of all, perhaps, is the lack of community and family loyalty that we once enjoyed.  At a time when the nation is in economic crisis, when so many are struggling just to survive, it is gut-wrenching that every neighbor and every family member doesn’t immediately pitch in, providing help and support in whatever way they can.

It’s sad that our local small businesses continue to die their slow death from a lack of community.  These businesses could employ our kids.  They could donate to those in need if they were in the black rather than always in the red.  Maybe we could find the product or service a wee bit cheaper in another part of the world, but will that part of the world “be there” for our kids when they need summer jobs? Will they donate to the family who just lost their home?  Will they provide “pen and paper” credit so a family can buy milk even though Dad was sick and unable to bring home a paycheck that week?

Because “community” no longer means what it once meant, the individuals within those communities have nowhere to turn when they are in need — other than to governmental programs such as Medicaid, the food stamps program, social security disability, and the like.  Doesn’t this cost us more, individually, than what it once cost for us to be a supportive part of our community?

Blaming the governmental programs for providing what Community fails to provide is a backwards way of thinking.  When Community dropped the ball, when neighbors stopped helping neighbors, the government responded.  What else could it have done?

And the lack of patriotism we once enjoyed — the common bond of American’s which we briefly saw after 9/11 — aren’t we paying the price for it now?  It’s no longer about “What you can do for your country,” but is all about “What your country can do for you.” And, so many blame the government — a government which had no choice but to step in because we failed in our communities.

There is a sense of entitlement amongst us now, collectively.  Especially with our youth and young adults — a group to whom I’ve dedicated the past 13+ years, and know very well — it’s all about “the right to” spout hate, to protest the funerals of soldiers, and carry signs to slander blacks, Jews, gays, and others.

When, exactly, did our “right” to hate become more important that our duty to be a good citizen?  When, exactly, did we cross the line from helping our neighbors to “minding our own business”?  What, exactly, happened that caused us to turn our backs on our public schools and the over-worked, under-paid teachers who spend more time with our children than we now do?  When did it become “right” to jail a mother for seeking a safe education for her children, forever labeling her as a Federal convict?  When did the “example” it set become more important than allowing a dedicated woman who is passionate about the well-being of children to become a teacher, something her conviction record will likely prohibit?

As my own children make their entry into the adult world, I can’t help but compare the challenges they now have that I couldn’t even imagine 25 years ago.  Each generation is supposed to be better than the last; we want more for our kids than we had.  But how many families actually realize that dream today?

There is a small class of people who do have the opportunity to give more to their kids than they received from their parents.  It is a class that enjoys a financial security unlike anything most folks can even conceive.  It is a class that has an unrealistic mentality and perspective on today’s lower and poverty classes.

It is a class which believes everyone has an equal opportunity in our nation, that if they can “make it,” so can everyone else.  They lack a realistic perception.

For more than 13 years, I’ve done my part.  I’ve struggled to maintain at least a sense of the old days, where communities and neighbors relied on one another.  I’ve opened my home and provided shelter when anyone has needed it, whether it be a stranger or a friend.  I’ve dedicated all of my time and all of my resources to families who needed the support, families and individuals whose futures held nothing but the promise of incarceration or death, or both.

When a school overlooked the fact that a 17-year-old couldn’t read, I took a year and taught him to read.  When a single mother of 3 had nowhere to turn after her trailer burned to the ground, I provided her with a key to my front door, food to eat, and bedrooms in which to sleep.  When a homeless man on the side of the highway was given a ticket for loitering, I paid it for him — and allowed him to live with us until was able to get back on his feet.

The examples could fill a book — but the point is this:  I’ve done my part.  I’ve done more than my fair share, in fact.  I’ve picked up the slack for the countless people who have forgotten (or never knew) the value of a good neighbor.  But, I can’t continue to carry the burden for so many, for so long, without support of my own.

I don’t want accolades.  I don’t want publicity.  I don’t want a movie made about my life.  What I want is a return to a time when I didn’t feel like I was the only one who valued community and family.  And, I know I’m not the only one who thinks, feels, and lives this way; there are others.  But, there are so few.

I want the selfish people in society to be the exception rather than the rule.  I want to see a real change made by real people, not government.

Will it happen in my lifetime?  I don’t know.  I do know that at least a few kids who are a part of our future, kids that call me “Mom,” are following my example.  Of that, I am the most proud.  But they are too few.  Like me, if they carry the burden alone, they will be weary.  They will face sleepless nights.  But, still, hopefully they’ll pass along the standard to their children, and their childrens’ children.

Hopefully, someday, the standard by which my kids and I live will no longer be a rarity; it will once again be the State of the Nation.

~ Lynda C. Watts

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