Friday, January 20, 2017

The Liberty Tree

Inauguration Day 2017. I spent much of the day at work in a struggle with a networked copy machine. I won the battle--I got my 600 copies made on 67 lb. cardstock--but not without significant tactical stress, amplified by the distance and the stairs between my office computer that created the document and the machine in the basement doing the printing.

It wasn't all about the machine. There was definitely displaced anger on display. I took time out in the late morning to watch Donald Trump take the oath of office and deliver his inaugural address. I found his "we, the people" rhetoric infuriating, along with his trashing of the last eight years of American progress and his dogwhistle call to his supporters, "you've got your country back."

Yet in one of my dogged trips up the flights of stairs from copy room to office, what should pop into my head but "Johnny Tremain"? Not the book by Esther Forbes, which I read many times as a child. The sound in my head came from the Disney movie adaptation.

Bear with me--this may be totally a Boomer thing. Sunday evenings in my childhood in the early 1960s were grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup eaten while watching "Lassie" at 6 on CBS, and "Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color" on NBC at 6:30. The Disney hour was often a nature or science program (not exactly must-see TV), but sometimes it was a lot more fun—episodes of "Davy Crocker," with Fess Parker as Davy and Buddy Ebsen as his sidekick, or Hayley Mills as Pollyanna, annoyingly cheerful in frilly dresses. And best of all, they re-ran "Johnny Tremain," a multi-episode movie version of the historical novel about a young man in revolutionary Boston in the 1770s.

Johnny was an orphan; he was cute, with an intriguing "widow's peak" framing his face. He was tragic; apprenticed to a silversmith, he burned his hand in an accident and his fingers grew together as it healed. And there was, of course, an innocuous love interest.

There was also a stirring patriotic tune in the score. Johnny participated in the original Tea Party, political action defying the Tea Act passed by the British Parliament in 1773. Colonists objected because they believed that it violated their rights as Englishmen to be taxed only by a legislative body in which they were represented. Today in my imagination I pictured myself swinging into the post-political action march:

Yes, there are precious few women (and the ones that are there are only accessories to the men),
but when I watched "Johnny Tremain" as a child, I did not fail to see myself in that parade. There's a leap of faith involved. In 1773 my own German ancestors were still in Germany. My great-great-great Grandfather Gotsch wouldn't arrive in America for another 75 years, not until European revolutionary fervor in 1848-49 challenged his clerical authority and upended his pastoral relationship with his parishioners. I do not have Boston patrician forefathers, but yet as a nine-year-old girl I could claim that liberty song for myself.

Since then I have lived through a lot of American history: the civil rights movement, the women's movement, Vietnam protests, Watergate, the GOP's Southern Strategy, 9/11, Iraq, gay marriage, and much more. I have learned in the classroom, from newspapers and from television news that the reality of America has fallen far short of the ideals of liberty and justice for all. The stories of my fellow Americans have put a wider and more diverse vision of America in front of me, a vision I share with many people, especially as we march into the future.

"And we are the sons, and we are the sons, the sons of liberty" sang in my head today, as I tromped from office to copy room. But the crowd I imagined around me no longer looked like a collection of Hollywood male actors circa 1957. I swung into the march with people of color, women in pink hats, Muslim children, people in wheelchairs, people with intellectual disabilities, black people protesting police violence, white people in need of good jobs, poor folks in need of basic health care--all of us with a shared and ever-expanding vision of liberty and justice for all.

I can't make it to a march tomorrow--too many responsibilities. But I'll be there in spirit, singing.
And it will grow as we grow, boys.
It will be as strong as we.
We must cling to our faith, boys—
faith in the Liberty Tree.
It’s a tall old Tree
And a strong old Tree
And we are the Sons
Yes, we are the Sons
The Sons of Liberty.