Privilege vs. Patriotism

Fourth of July preparations brought back vivid memories of my husband’s and my 2016 Washington D.C. trip. I witnessed acts of patriotism and sadly, one act of selfish, assumed privilege.

My husband Frank and I joined a tour group of forty people from various walks of life. Our guide said she hoped everyone would employ democratic principles which included being respectful about the time schedule. She also explained that she’d rotate the index card name tags taped on the wall near our coach seats so all would have an equal chance to view the scenery from the choice seats.

The first day of our five-day tour we boarded the coach for Arlington Cemetery. Two elderly women who kept to themselves sat in the front seat. We toured slowly through the cemetery and viewed acres of flowering apple and cherry trees mixed with colorful tulips. These stood in sharp contrast to the rows of small white gravestones denoting sacrifices fellow Americans had made for our freedom.

The next day the two elderly women again sat in the front seat. If they’d switched name tags, the message of sacrifice and democracy obviously wasn’t sinking in. A group of us whispered about our suspicions.

I assumed the women were either sisters or friends. I’d attempted conversation with one of them earlier, but I didn’t get much of a response. They continued to ignore the rest of us.

Our group split into interest groups, and I chose to tour a museum exhibit of self-taught artist Clementine Hunter. The daughter of slaves, Clementine spent much of her life picking cotton in Louisiana. During any free time, she painted scenes of life on a plantation. Her work depicted hardship, and in a few cases, joy. Her passion and desire to share her artistic talent allowed me to get a sense of what her life was like in the early 1900s. While viewing Clementine’s work, I thought of the elderly women, wondering about their backstory. Was their background one of hardship or was it one of privilege, allowing them to think they were better than others?

On the third day several of us caught one of the women peeling off her and her companion’s name tags and switching it with the two names in the front seat. Knowing we were observing her, she set her jaw in an arrogant manner as if defying us to speak out. Was it worth the trouble to confront her? We remained silent.

While viewing the Cherry Festival Parade, we stood while a uniformed general on horse-back carried the American flag. The horse deposited a messy pile. A female officer in her spot-less, starched uniform and polished shoes would have to walk through it in order to keep the straight line. A young man holding a plastic bag unassumingly hurried out onto the street and scooped up the manure. His humble action left an impression on me. Patriotic acts, I reflected, both large and small, could be performed every day.

Our tour continued with viewing the memorials to Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King. The tribute to the Marine Corps, the Korean War, and viewing more than 58,000 names on the reflective black granite Vietnam War memorial wall moved many of us to tears.

Back on the coach, I talked with a retired police officer who sat across the aisle from me. He mentioned that he’d been on duty at the World Trade Center during the September 11th terrorist attack. He looked away, his eyes letting me know he didn’t want to talk about it. I could only imagine all he’d seen and done.

On the fourth day of our tour, our guide noticed that the elderly women were once again in the front seat. “What’s going on here?” she asked.

The retired police officer told her they’d been moving the name tags. Our guide whipped off their index cards and pointed to a seat near the back. When they didn’t go, she said the bus would not move until they did. The women obeyed. I, and many others, I’m sure, wanted to applaud.

We concluded our tour with a visit to Washington’s Mount Vernon and Jefferson’s Monticello. I was overwhelmed with facts about the founding of our country, but my mind kept flicking back to every day patriots: the police officer who spoke up, our tour guide who took action, and the young bystander who ran out in the street to pick up manure so the military wouldn’t have to walk through it.

Appearing in various sizes, colors, and shapes, patriots speak up when they witness injustice and are concerned about the health, happiness, and welfare of all Americans.

This Fourth of July, whether I venture out or celebrate at home, I’ll be sure to give a silent thanks to our country’s patriots.

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