Visiting Philadelphia, pondering nation's past and present


So, I'm off to Philadelphia with Aaron, 19, and Joseph, 10, for a couple of reasons. The first is because my two youngest defected from the Green Bay Packers and became Eagles fans instead. And, since Jonathan and I make an annual jaunt to Green Bay to see the Packers, I don't want Aaron and Joseph to someday complain to a therapist I loved their brother more than I loved them.

That's only true when the Packers are playing the Eagles.

But I'm also in Philadelphia to introduce my boys to some American history. And cheesesteaks. Is that actually meat in there? It looks more like spamelope, a genetically engineered cheesesteak deer. And that cheese whiz stuff they squirt in there! Not sure it's food.

I ask a policeman for directions. He's a walking, talking, Irish cliche. Brusque, loud and chatty. And, yes, he calls me "Johnny." He's so stereotypically an Irish cop that I wonder if they hire him just for tourists like me.

I'd forgotten there are a lot of Irish Americans in this city.

What I didn't know is that Philadelphia undertook an archaeological dig here to uncover the President's House, built when the nation's capital was here. There it is now, exposed for history buffs like me. A sign identifies the slave bedroom chamber adjacent to the parlor. The sign poses an intriguing thought: What was it like for a slave to listen to our Founding Fathers propose and then fight for a truth they saw as "self-evident - that all men are created equal"? Great question, really. Who was the first slave to elbow another slave and say, "Is it just me, or are you noticing an irony here?"

That's why I think the crack in the Liberty Bell is such a great metaphor. They rang that bell only a few times before they decided they couldn't ring it at all. The metaphor, for me, is not one of shame; rather, it is a metaphor of humility and therefore inspiration. Noticing that all men are created equal is the easy part. But living that way is a daily and humbling endeavor for a nation's lifetime. The liberty of every American is inextricably tied to all Americans. Or, as the existentialists would say it, no one is free until we are all free.

We walk by a law office. The name on the door has, maybe, 46 letters. Something like D'Antoniolangostiningokdmcn. What a name! I'd forgotten there are a lot of Italian-Americans in this city.

We go to Independence Hall. We stand next to the plaque saying "Abraham Lincoln stood here." I close my eyes and imagine Jefferson, Franklin, Hancock, et al., clomping up these steps to talk more about this fledgling idea of democracy. OK, what if people had inalienable rights? What if we begin every discussion with the idea that folks are created equal? What if power itself is the problem with government? Any kind of power - political, legal, economic, military. What if we set this up with checks and balances mitigating imbalances of power, thereby reducing the chance of powerful people abusing power?

I ask young Joseph to close his eyes and imagine those men, turn by turn, each affixing his signature to the Declaration of Independence. Yes, freedom would be theirs, and their gift to the three of us tourist geeks. But they'd have to fight for it.

I wonder if the mostly English people - Quakers, to be specific - who lived here chafed when the potato famine in Ireland brought the Irish. I wonder if they had the same unease when the Italians came. I wonder if anybody said to a neighbor, with a combination of fear and nostalgia, "This is not the same America I once knew."

Because those are the exact words I'm hearing from lots of folks about Latin Americans in the aftermath of the Nov. 6 election. Analysts say the Latin American vote was a significant shift, likely turning the tide for Barack Obama in California and Florida. Maybe to some extent here in Nevada. If you listen to some Americans, you get the idea they wish our Founding Fathers had added the popular schoolyard rhyme at the close of the Constitution: "Tick, tock/ The game is locked/ Nobody else can play/ If they do, we'll take their shoe/ And keep it for a year or two."

The Eagles lose badly to the hated Cowboys. But my two sons and I win big. Time together. Time to remember what America is. Time to be grateful.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of "Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing" (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at 702-227-4165 or skalas@review journal.com.

 

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