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Life as Performance Art

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I expect after Independence Day newspaper columns, TV and social media pundits bemoaning American patriotism is on the slippery slope down. They point out we have lost love for our country. Let’s look more closely.
How do you measure patriotism? Ratio of homes with Old Glory on display vs. those without? American flag lapel pins on jackets? Left or right lapel, does it matter?
Measures based on opinion polls are worthless snapshots of the moment. My views after four cups of morning coffee and after one of Madam’s wonderful lunches vary.
American patriotism never dwindles or goes away. When our nation is threatened or faces a challenge, we become more vocal. The day after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, thousands of young men stood for hours outside recruiting offices to join up. Patriotism was noisy and visible after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Sucker punch Uncle Sammy, we come back swinging. At other times such as now, it’s expressed in other ways more quietly.
The morning after Independence Day I ran into an elderly friend who had been drafted during the Korean War, then hung around the barracks till Vietnam started. A year or so later he retired, returned home and became active in the Veterans of Foreign War.  
Until the Great Shut Down a couple of years ago, I saw him several times a year as an honor guard at military funerals, his final act of recognition for a deceased comrade. He’s now in his late 80s and still serving.
His wife is active in the Auxiliary, mainly with their bingo games because the money goes to care for veterans. No flashy flag-waving or shouting for them. It’s a dedicated life of service.
After the Civil War, union soldiers formed the Grand Army of the Republic and held annual reunions. After World War One, the Doughboys formed the American Legion. After the second war, GI’s joined the Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars.  
But our military did not have a clearcut victory in Korea, and there was such dislike for the Vietnam War many returning service persons chose not to wear their their uniforms when they got off the plane. 
Some felt betrayed by the government and the lack of civilian support for their sacrifices. Fewer found value thereafter in joining a veterans’ group. Which doesn’t mean they don’t want to make this a better nation.
A longtime friend, now in his 90s, was a pioneer in fiber optics and designed the telephone system for Cairo, Egypt several decades ago. Today he mentors youths in math so they can succeed in school. He and his wife work with nature conservation groups. This is patriotism in action building a better future.
Who else does that? Adult leaders of youth groups such as 4-H, the Scouts, Campfire Girls, in churches and volunteers at our libraries. Parents who volunteer, pay fees, drive children to and from events, and turn out for their activities.
It happens when churches collect supplies for school backpacks or hair stylists make sure every youngster looks sharp for the first day of school. There is rarely flag waving or shouting “We’re Number One,” just a steady pressing forward. You may know others like this or be one of them yourself.
We don’t necessarily think of such acts, nor, say, recycling or composting, as patriotic. We don’t boast about it, wave flags or hold parades, we just do it.
President Reagan pushed the message of volunteering hard and often during his two terms in office. His critics thought he was just trying to shift some workload off government to the rest of us, just reducing the federal budget. Reagan claimed citizens who truly love their country volunteer to make it better.
I love our national holiday parades, seeing streets lined with American flags with smaller ones on veterans’ headstones. Celebrations are good for us, even when they fit what Thomas Paine probably meant when he wrote about “summer soldiers and sunshine patriots” in his Revolutionary War-era pamphlet “Common Sense.” 
Real patriotism is a matter of believing in our country — all of it: good and bad, past, present, future. We roll up our sleeves and do what we can to make it better.

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