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"The Rocket's Red Glare" (July 2011)

Is the age of great and singular American achievements over? Musings on the national birthday, the end of an era, and nothing about Roger "The Rocket" Clemens or any other courtroom drama.

Our little village celebrates the 4th of July with a morning parade. All of the kids are drafted into service, as are a number of farm animals so that there will be enough passing by the parade judges on one of the porches to allow them to finish at least half a cup of coffee. Then we have an awards ceremony and community sing followed by a big potluck picnic.

I'd imagine we're like a lot of small communities across the land, celebrating our history and heritage with food and song, pomp and circumstance. While we all might vary the ingredients to our Americana pie a little bit, it's basically the same recipe.

But this year's national birthday celebration was followed by a milestone I found personally sad - the final mission of the Space Shuttle. I was a kid when the shuttles first started into service. I came home from college one day to find my parents stunned in front of the TV watching the Challenger exploding on endless looping video feeds. In a way the shuttle was a new frontier, and we had almost forgotten just how risky pushing our physical boundaries can be.

It's perhaps a symbol or a symptom of our times that we've gone from the derring-do "beat the Commies" race to land a man on the moon to renting space on a Russian rocket to tote stuff up to the Space Station. I've often wondered if we have passed beyond the era of great public works. Designing landmark bridges and buildings certainly seems like a relic of the past, replaced by minimal cost functional utilitarian structures.

We've spent some time this summer in Shenandoah National Park and on the Blue Ridge Parkway. I'm always drawn to the simple elegance of fieldstone and chestnut structures built during the Great Depression on public lands across the country by the boys of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Built to last, for sure. But perhaps the last of the great building?

It's hard not to wonder if this is just a national phase of adolescence where we just want to do enough to get by,and that at some point a more "adult" perspective will prevail, where we want to make things nicely, finely crafted and built to last. Or if perhaps we have outsourced the creativity of doing great works to other places and other peoples willing to subsidize them. I'd hate to think that war has become our latest focus of ingenuity and creativity - it's expensive in every way and sure has left behind a whole lot of damage across this lands in addition to a huge hole in our bank account.

When traveling across the ribbons of highway that vein this great land, it is rare to see newer roads designed with the care and vision of the Parkway or the Skyline Drive. We are in a hurry, there are places to be and things to do. But we also struggle simply to maintain our utilitarian highways and bridges. It costs money after all, just like monuments and rockets and war machines.

It is this question of American spirit and ingenuity, and purpose and vision, that burns in my mind this summer. As I listened to the various different appropriate patriotic songs and hymns, I found the one that most stirred my soul was not the impressive martial overtones of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic", the folk anthem "This Land is Your Land", or the religious fervor of "God Bless America", but rather the one that celebrates the overarching gifts of this land - "America the Beautiful".

From the monoliths of Yosemite to the cables spanning the George Washington Bridge, America is filled with sights natural and manmade that inspire wonder and awe. And plenty of sights that inspire wonder at how we could go so awry. From flattened Appalachian mountains to faceless big box subdivisions. The end of big architecture and big dreams in favor of big profits and individual accomplishments? Or is this, much like our political process, more like the pendulum swinging back and forth?

Happy 235th Birthday America. I guess only time will tell us what you will turn out to be.




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