Thanksgiving Day and weekend traditionally are times to be thankful for what we have, and to be mindful of what others do not have. I've recently been traveling to different parts of the country. There, as in Seattle, I have seen visible volunteer efforts on behalf of the needy which have been missing in previous years.
Poverty and hunger are in evidence. But also in evidence are food-bank activities, boxes at department and food stores filled with clothing and foodstuffs, Salvation Army bellringers collecting ample cash contributions, military servicemen and women, police, and firefighters and ordinary citizens dispensing turkeys, food, and toys to the needy. Our churches, as always, rise to such occasions. We need each other this season, amid these hard times.
My most vivid early Thanksgiving memory is of Thanksgiving Day, 1942, when I was eight years old. It was the first Thanksgiving during World War II. The call went out in Bellingham for families to host GIs who were stationed in the area. My parents and I welcomed Jimmy, 19, an Army private barracked down the street in what had been our First Christian Church. Jimmy was from Oklahoma. He had little to say, but tears formed in his eyes when my mother gave him a huge plateful of the usual turkey, dressing, cranberry sauce, and the rest. Later he was sent to the Pacific. We got one letter from him before he was killed in action.
Another memorable Thanksgiving was spent with our GIs in 1967 in Vietnam. I was there with my boss, Vice President Humphrey, at an enlisted mess hall at an airstrip in I Corps, where U.S. Marines served. Peace was not then in sight, although we were trying to bring that about. Humphrey did not have it in him to give the Marines a pep talk. He simply thanked them for their sacrifices. From there, we went to a hospital where casualties were being loaded off choppers. The North Vietnamese had not taken a holiday.
I was a Depression kid, so the current hard times bring memories not just of war but of what it was like during far deeper hard times. My dad was out of work for a full three years in the 1930s. During much of that time, he and his fellow millworkers in Bellingham were on picket lines fighting for (and ultimately winning) the right to unionize.
In the hard years, we all were poor and took it as a matter of course. The families in our neighborhood shared food and clothing. We gathered in small groups to listen to President Franklin Roosevelt's hope-filled fireside radio chats. On Thanksgiving, owning no car, my mom, dad, and I traditionally took a bus to an aunt and uncle's farm near Deming. There we ate like kings and queens. I always sat near my older cousins, Fred and Dick Kinderman. Dick became a World War II hero, serving aboard a submarine that sank a Japanese capital ship in Yokohama harbor.
At recent high-school reunions, we Bellingham High School classmates tend to be upbeat and joyful. Sharing the Depression and World War II childhoods as we did, we came up expecting little, stuck together, and have found wonderment in the frequent good fortune that befell us later. Our years of growing up were We rather than Me years. And so, my greatest aspiration is that our current shared sacrifice may help restore some of the We spirit in our country.
There is too much anger and hatred abroad in the land — for the most part not for rational reasons but about matters that ought to be resolved in civil discourse. That certainly is the case with public-policy issues such as systemic changes in health care, in developing alternative energy sources, in enhancing the quality of public education, or in developing an immigration policy that safeguards our borders but still keeps faith with our open-door tradition. Even the war-peace debate about Iraq and Afghanistan can be conducted in the knowledge that we all are in it together.
We also seem to have forgotten that our country traditionally has offered freedom of religion. Vituperation directed toward people of faith, almost any faith, is disturbing to me. I am a secular person but cannot understand the hostility often directed toward those of faith as if they were by definition stupid and reactionary.
Here in our beautiful, naturally endowed Northwest, my greatest hope is for a more aware and less complacent citizenry. I have experienced politics and public policy-making nationally and in many other states and cities. It is no exaggeration to say that our highly educated, prosperous metro area is one of the least publicly aware and involved places in the United States. Bumper-sticker-level dialogue takes place around litmus-test issues. Wee lack serious candidates for public office and, more disturbingly, a serious citizenry that takes the trouble to inform itself and become involved beyond a superficial level. Here the bland lead the bland.
We have new elected leaders in Seattle and King County. They deserve the benefit of the doubt as they begin their terms of office. But they also will need our vigilance and involvement. Otherwise it will be the Same 'Ole, Same 'Ole two and four years from now as we blame the people we elected for falling short, then stop paying attention again until the next electoral cycle.
We live in a rich and powerful country which often demands too little of its individual citizens. May we, as individuals, give more of ourselves during a period which will be more difficult than we imagine over the next several years.