When I was 16 and people with whom I agreed burned the flag, and people with whom I disagreed used the flag as a weapon, my dad said to me, “It’s our flag, too.”
If I had a tattoo, that’s what it would say, “It’s our flag, too.”
My daughter spent a lot of her spare time this winter wrapped up against the cold on the streets of downtown Brooklyn asking strangers for the signatures that are needed to get the fellow from her hometown on the presidential primary ballot in New York’s eighth congressional district. That’s Lily. Some of you know her, and I know the thought of her makes you smile. She has a positive spirit. Lily collected signatures from strangers on the streets of Brooklyn after work, after long, tough social worker days telling patients and their families the truth about what’s out there when they leave Manhattan’s Mt. Sinai hospital. And, after an hour squeezed into the New York City subway. She canvased in the cold on the weekends, too, one of them in New Hampshire, when she could have spent the time with her husband, Ari, and their corgi, Benji, and playing some tennis.
“It was hard,” Lily told me on the phone, the day before the Iowa caucuses. Lily also accepted some management responsibility in the effort, which means asking other people to do what she didn’t really enjoy doing any more than they did for no pay, and which means that when they don’t do what they are supposed to do, she has to.
They had to have the signatures.
"It was hard,” she told me, “but most people are really nice, even if they don’t want to sign.”
The exception to the rule, though, can be the one we most remember.
"There was one lady,” Lily told me, “who said she absolutely would not sign a petition for Pete Buttigieg. She told me she had heard that the town where he was mayor, South Bend, Indiana, is a terrible place, especially for minorities, and he’s a bad guy who has done things to make life bad for people there.
“I told her, ‘I’m from South Bend,’” Lily said, “and I said, ‘I don’t think that’s true.’”
“Then the woman said, ‘Well, I have friends in South Bend, and I say it is.’”
Lily got the signatures.
My sister’s granddaughter had taken an interest in Pete. “A friend told me about him,” she told me last month. “I like his positive spirit.”
Audra is a freshman in a rural high school and she lives, now, in the house my dad spent six years building in the back yard of our old house, after work at the Fisher Body plant in Marion and on the weekends, in Normal, Indiana, population 20, when he could have been doing something else. Audra lives with her mom and dad in the house where I lived when I was a freshman in high school, in the year 1968, when I took an interest in the campaign of Bobby Kennedy. Lily told me she’d send Audra some Pete buttons. My sister, Audra’s grandma, said Audra would be thrilled.
The spring of that 1968 presidential campaign, when the segregationist George Wallace was a more popular choice in my community, I wore a Kennedy button to school and I had a Kennedy bumper sticker on my science folder that I propped up on the lab table faucet in physical science class, That’s where I met Lotis Freeman, best man at my wedding nine years later. Everybody likes the Beatles and the Cubs; we like Simon and Garfunkel and the Cardinals, and Bobby Kennedy. Lotis Freeman, whose dad worked at Chrysler in Kokomo, joined me at that table in the back because there were not enough desks for every student up front. Lotis Freeman had a Kennedy bumper sticker on his folder, too, that he propped up on the faucet next to him. We were surprised that when class started, Mr. Durr did not make us put them down. Maybe he’s one of us. Maybe he likes Kennedy’s positive spirit, too.
We were sad, of course, when it ended for the Kennedy campaign in disappointment of the worst possible kind. It’s the sort of sadness that’s never gone away, and it’s the beginning of being a grown-up, of things not turning out the way we knew they should.
Now, Audra, my sister’s granddaughter, is a freshman in high school and while I still think of her as a child, I didn’t think I was a child at that age. Pete Buttigieg is her Bobby Kennedy. Thirteen presidential elections, 52-years later, this is her year for that, freshman year, while she’s living in the house that Dad built.
Music: "Mrs. Robinson" by Simon & Garfunkel