Back then, back when men were men and wars were wars, the seats on the Frankford El, the city’s first low speed line, were made of hardened cane. They ripped at your skin and tore at your pants but they could never break your spirit.
Every year, on the Fourth of July, we would put on our Sunday best, my mother, my father, my sister and I, and take the B bus and the El train to the cradle of liberty, better known as the Fifth Street El stop. There, we would join the thousands of other sweating citizens who didn’t have barbecue plans that day, to sizzle in the sun while bands played and politicians did what politicians do.
This was back when the Liberty Bell was still in Independence Hall, before they moved it to that barren building that looked like a bad Burger King. This was back when patriotism wasn’t considered corny, back when this country was considered to be the smartest country in the world.
I remember sitting on those folding chairs on what would become Independence Mall and looking at all the military men in crisp, clean uniforms, thinking that was a good thing to do, to be a soldier.
In the years that followed those lazy lemonade days, I would grow up way too fast. Just like all the boys I knew, I would quickly be facing manhood, highly eligible for the war that everyone said would be the last ground war of our lifetime.
Later, I would take the El to K&A, to the old Army building, to go through my induction physical at the height of the Vietnam war. It was like a high school reunion, without the girls and the beer. Half the kids in my graduating class were there, standing tall in their underwear, coughing when the man said, “cough.”
In the months that followed, I would see many of their faces again. This time, though, it would be in endless newspaper postings as, one by one, so many of my friends were killed in the latest war to end all wars.
And those who made it back alive weren’t really whole. There were no parades on Independence Days for them. No marching bands, no speeches. They had fought a war that the country had learned to hate, and they were treated accordingly.
Was this what our founding fathers had in mind? Was this what they talked about in those many months inside Independence Hall? Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the document that allows us to be free, was quite outspoken when it came to conflict. “I abhor war, he said, “and view it as the greatest scourge of mankind.”
But here we are, another Independence Day smarter, stuck in another land war in a place that feels like hell. Here we go again, sending our bravest young men and women into harm’s way to make another doomsday desert safe for democracy.
Jefferson had something to say about that, too: “A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine.”
As we eat our hot dogs and potato salad this year, and watch our ballgames, we need to think about those young people in uniform. We need to support them in spirit and prayer. But we also need to face reality. Jefferson wouldn’t have liked this war. He would have hated its tactics and berated its leaders. He was a wise man, Thomas Jefferson, a man who would have scorned the people who got us and keep us in this war. He would have spoken out about it. He would have demanded an accounting. He would have detested deceit and urged honesty. “Honesty” Jefferson said, “is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.”