November of 1969 brought the first snow of the season, quiet nights, and Sister Lucille’s fifth-grade homework assignments. I sat at the kitchen table on those cold and long-ago evenings reading from The History of These United States as part of my studies. The light from a single brass chandelier illuminated the pages of my book. My mother kept me company as she washed and dried the supper dishes. Her pots and pans clanked against the white porcelain sink as she worked.
I remember reading that the United States was a great experiment; that our government was constructed to protect the life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness of all of its citizens. It was the first time in the history of the western world that opportunity and prosperity for ordinary people counted for something. I read that our Constitution was created by learned men to insure that our government fulfilled its responsibilities in a fair and equitable manner; men such as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton struggled to instill that living and vital document with wisdom and truth.
Our resultant democracy so inspired the world that France bestowed the gift of the Statue of Liberty to the United States in 1884. That statue was erected in New York Harbor in 1886 with these words inscribed upon its base: Give me your tired, your poor; Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free; The wretched refuse of your teeming shore; Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me; I lift my lamp beside the golden door. Writing doesn’t get much better than that.
And yet to me, these words represented more than just lessons from a book; they formed the very principles that guided the lives of our small community. Nearly all of my friends in my neighborhood could trace their ancestry to immigrants that arrived in the United States at the end of the 19th century. I remember looking up from my book to the glow of the yellow lights of my grandfather’s backyard workshop a few houses up the street on Manhattan Avenue. “Grandpa’s working late tonight,” I said to my mother. I watched as the lights of his workshop dimmed, knowing that one of his electric machines was being asked to perform some task on a piece of wood. He had a work station for his lathe, for his table saw, his drill press, and for his band-saw. And, as they powered into action, each had the ability to smother the breath of the incandescent light bulbs that lit the darkness.
His workshop always filled me with a sense of wonder. The scent of cut wood, turpentine, and machine oil lingered there. It was filled with his tools, his competency, and his rules. He used to say to me, “Be good, think clearly, and do your best.” My grandfather was only eight years old when he arrived at Ellis Island in 1896 as an immigrant from Eastern Europe. He found opportunity and a chance to live a long and satisfying life. He loved this country, and appreciated the government policies that helped him to find his way.
A helping hand
With my experience, I find it difficult to understand the pronouncements of those who seek to demonize the role of government in our lives. I doubt the reasoning of those who envelop themselves within the American flag while at the same time undermining the ability of government to function properly. For over 236 years our country has been the envy of the world because it has always reached out a helping hand to those in need. Just read the headlines in recent newspapers of how our automobile industry was saved by our government from the scrap pile; read how our government is making a difference in the lives of those touched by Hurricane Sandy, and read how the Affordable Care Act is making a difference in the lives of those in dire need of medical care.
So, this Thanksgiving, I reflect on all of the blessings and opportunities still provided by our country and by our government. And, as my grandfather did when he viewed the Statue of Liberty in the New York Harbor 116 years ago, I, too, give thanks.
David Bobovnyik is a lawyer who works for the state of Ohio in Youngstown who records from time to time his memories of growing up on the West Side.