Texas is a state of mind, in a way. People here proudly proclaim their native birth status on bumper stickers and the like. There's also more than a few folks driving around here with bumper stickers saying "I wasn't born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could." It's definitely a state of mind, and Texas is a very big-tent sort of place. The people are friendly and those of us of a more *ahem* eccentric bent are often looked kindly upon, if pityingly so, by friends and neighbors. The great thing is that more folks are welcome and embraced as new members of the community.
In 2002 I was living in a loft in the NuGrape soda building on south Ervay in Dallas. This was where Jack Ruby had opened his first Dallas burlesque joint - a seedy dive called the Silver Slipper Lounge. [No, the Ghost of Strippers Past never appeared.] Anyway, the September 11 had happened the year before, and here even 10 months later everyone was still on edge. Although friends and I didn't discuss it, I think many of our lives were limned with a horrid undercurrent of wondering when the next shoe would drop, and things like holidays were anticipated with some degree of trepidation, as though that would be a moment of particular vulnerability.
Anyway, that was the first or second year of a huge firework festival in Dallas called Trinity Riverfest, with an award-winning team having been secured to create a singular firework display. We residents, friends and family gathered on the rooftop deck to watch the light show. Some climbed over the railings to scamper over to the roof of the adjacent art deco theater where they could lay on the slanted roof and watch reclining and in comfort.
We oohed and aahed at all the appropriate moments. The firework display was appropriately spectacular, and I think I wasn't the only one there thinking of how profoundly blessed we were to be here and now, and to enjoy the opportunities and freedoms we have had, and what a precious treasure that really is. When the reporting echoes of the grand finale's final bursts reached us, we stood in silence, the 40 or so of us. I think we were all overcome, and no words seemed big enough.
Over at the back corner, one of the taller among my neighbors, a lovely man named Bradley Bandfield, began to sing "God Bless America" and within 10 words we'd all joined in. It was the perfect ending to July 4th for all of us. For me, it seemed that so much stress and grief and anxiety was instantly washed away in the tide of good feeling pouring forth at that moment.
I knew a little about that song's composer, Irving Berlin, and I knew that he was a staunchly patriotic soul. Born in 1888, his Jewish family came to the USA in 1893 to escape the Russian pogroms. Irving enjoyed massive success with his first hit Alexander's Ragtime Band in 1911, and despite this fame and celebrity, he enlisted in the US Army in WWI. It was during this time he composed God Bless America for a musical he was writing to entertain fellow troops, but he decided not to use it at the time. This song was later revealed to much welcome in 1939. Some at the time even felt that the national anthem should be changed to this song.
Anyway, this was all by way of pulling focus from my then-lately habitude of unsettling thoughts that random haters from the world over wanted to come here and kill Americans for being American, and put the emphasis back in my mind on the fact that at one point or another, nearly all of us came here from somewhere else. I think that intrepid, pioneering spirit forges a bond of kinship amongst those who strive for freedom and excellence in their lives.
It's exciting to think how rather than be eternally hounded by fears and angst after such cruel beginnings, that instead someone like Irving Berlin turned his energy into a wellspring of gratitude and good humour for the nation that welcomed his family to come and take their chances and make a good life out of whatever meagre raw material they could scrounge. July 4, 2002 and since then, I've treasured this memory and have considered the fact that many folks I'm privileged to call fellow Americans were not born here. They just got here as fast as they could. Bless 'em.
And Happy Birthday, America!