Last summer, I attended a town hall meeting held by our local congressman. The event was packed and featured “informational” packets slanted with “stat-facts” based on questionable sources, and graphic diagrams intentionally designed to visually irritate and confuse rather than educate. Nonetheless, I came seeking other views, hoping to expand my thoughts, and eager to see whether everyone would receive a fair hearing. Truth be told, I came because of my dad, Big Jim, and the pieces of him that live on within me.
I came because my father taught me to love history and politics, instilling me with a deep appreciation for informed decision-making. I came because he and my mom made me turn off the television, do my own homework, think for myself, and select my sources carefully. I came because my parents gave me a hunger for ideas, critical thinking and the dynamics of true debate. I came because I ached to witness Americans stand up to increasingly disturbing influences and return civility to civil discourse.
As a young woman, my father took me to Washington DC, and Gettysburg. On an oppressive sizzling July afternoon, we climbed the hills to the Custis-Lee mansion when simply breathing beneath a shady tree would have been heroic for my dad, who true to his name was a big man. The expansive hillside view of the Potomac, Washington, the Kennedy gravesite, and Arlington was magnificent and more than worth the effort. Together we toured the Capitol for three glorious days, twice lunching in the Congressional dining room, and stopping reverentially at the Presidential box in Ford's Theater. (Re: the lunch. My father had no special connections, he simply always looked as though he knew where he was going; he knew what to say and to whom. He was a sort of magic magnet attracting interesting situations and people. In and around him serendipity and synchronicity danced. )
At Gettysburg, we toured the battlefields and dad hired a guide to help us see and learn more. Together, we stood at Cemetery Ridge looking south to Little Round Top and Big Round Top. In silence we surveyed the Wheatfield; in appropriate horror we imagined the bloodbath of Pickett's Charge. I learned that history is biography and geography. I saw the value of securing the high ground, and I gained a keen appreciation of the fact that war is unspeakable carnage. Once home, we read a variety of Civil War essays, (primarily first-person accounts) and discussed Henry Steele Commager's two-volume classic: The Blue and the Gray, which we both loved. Dad listened eagerly to my ideas and led me to new ones via his questions long before I knew anything about Socratic methods.
At a young age, dinner conversations often involved politics. I was allowed to stay up late on election nights and I loved the drama of conventions back before they were merely coronations. On those nights, atop the mattress in my parents' room we watched television, debated issues, candidates, campaigns and elections. Years later, from the same vantage point, we absorbed the machinations of the Watergate break-in, cover-up and subsequent hearings which led us to discussing the roles of politicians, the qualities of statesmanship, as well as whether ends ever justify the means. We talked about the Constitution, legislation, the Supreme Court, Vietnam, and our founders’ vision.
Together, we examined nearly every significant issue until he died early in 1999. My dad was the first person I called on election nights, and my favorite sparring partner in all political discussions. While he never brandished a gun, his mind was always, “fully loaded”. He never missed an election, and always did his homework. Big Jim's curiosity, interests, and passion became my own, and because of him I know that my responsibilities toward the ideals of Democracy and informed citizenship are sacred.
Perhaps as no surprise, my father and I rarely reached the same political conclusions, and admittedly I often “cancelled” his vote. But he showed me the importance of alternate views and the absolute necessity of honoring and respecting those who hold them. He taught me by word and example that American Democracy is strong enough to honor conflicting opinions and vital enough to value the experiences and insights of infinitely diverse individuals.
Today, no doubt, we would be on opposite sides of many issues, but oh, how I long to hear what he might say. If I could talk to my dad now, I know that he would LISTEN to my concerns and arguments without belittling me, calling me names or ever questioning my patriotism. I know I would need to approach the exchanges with logical and well–researched information. Although we often disagreed, our conversations left us energized with broadened understanding tempered by the knowledge that we both loved this nation and relished problem-solving and truth-seeking.
My dad embraced people, history, civics, civil discourse, and ideas enthusiastically, always encouraging me to do the same. Big Jim was a zealous, responsible and respect-full teacher/citizen/patriot, and now thanks to him, so am I.
© 2010 Rebecca Ann Pelley All Rights Reserved