August 07, 2011
I am an American.
I say this to myself and marvel at the tangled reaction. There is the flush of embarrassment, the red tingling of some humiliation or slight that I cannot recall; I feel as though I owe somebody an apology. There is the apprehension that comes with knowing I am sheltered, a sense of being fattened up to be set loose among the hunters, the fierce entitlement of an only child. As for the pride and strength that are so often sung about these days, there is some of that; it is a small yet undeniable core that is muffled by the red-faced and jittery feelings, the sense of being foolish, of being misrepresented. Of being unprepared.
In 1941, my grandfather drove across the country from Detroit to California to deliver a car and see the World’s Fair in San Francisco. There were no highways, the car broke down constantly, he slept in fields, and he said it was the best trip of his life. He hitchhiked home. Three years later he landed in France in World War II. Marched through France and into Germany. “Patton was right,” my grandfather told me. “We should have gone after Stalin when we had the chance.”
After the war, he got married in his uniform, finished a business degree at the University of Michigan, and took a job at Sears, where he would work for 38 years until his retirement in 1982. He moved into a house where the family fishery once stood and he served as township commissioner of Caseville, where he knew everybody by name.
My father followed in his footsteps. Except the war was Vietnam and Sears started offshoring its manufacturing. My dad changed after he lost his job, moving among various retail positions and the occasional pyramid scheme, and keeping to himself, hardly speaking at all.
And me? I spent a summer working the cash register in the lighting department at Sears, but I’ve had twenty-eight jobs since I started working at fifteen, ranging from the night shift at a gas station to selling oriental rugs to teaching graduate school to running a graphic design studio. I’ve never gone to war and I’ve never been punched. My life in New York City feels insulated, detached from responsibility, and the effect is compounded by the fact that most of my activities are conducted in front of a computer screen.
I am a million miles away from my father and grandfather, who played by a different set of rules: a belief in country and companies, a dogged faith in firm handshakes and settling down.
I decide to go for a drive.
And I keep driving, thinking I might learn a thing or two. New Jersey, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Kansas. Whenever I can find some time and a cheap rental car, I pack a bag and drive. Oklahoma, Wyoming, California, Tennessee, Oregon, North Carolina. Sometimes I’ll point the car toward the ocean, other times I’ll pick an interesting city or a small town along the border. Florida, Texas, Montana, New Mexico, Delaware, and North Dakota. I keep driving, thinking that I might figure out what I’m made of, that I might discover what it means to be a man in America.
What does it mean to be a man?
A man has politics. He knows where he stands. He takes charge. He’s authentic and genuine. An original. I’ve learned these things from commercials. Driving down a miracle mile, I see whiskey advertisements telling me that I’m a class act. A billboard for beer promises an exciting night. A deodorant company offers an embarrassing orgy. An advertisement for a pair of khakis says that I need to be more rugged. Another poster tells me that I’m missing out on the excitement. The one next to it says that I don’t need to fit in. Every single piece of printed material is telling me that I’m a disaster. A real man ignores these messages. He’s busy making decisions. He’s breaking hearts and fixing things.
There’s a big electric sign just before the Delaware Bridge on southbound I-95 that says If You Are in Crisis, Call 1-800-273- TALK. I often think about this sign as I fall asleep, how right now it’s blinking somewhere out there in the big American night. I imagine all the different people zooming under it at eighty miles per hour and I wonder what kind of person might dial that number. Will I ever call?
Reprinted from THE ROAD TO SOMEWHERE: An American Memoir by James Reeves. Copyright (c) 2011 by James A. Reeves. Used by permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.