When I hear this phrase, I think of that old Merle Haggard song, the one about being an Okie from Muskogee, not dropping LSD, and not burning your draft card.
My father has always been a big fan of this song (at least as far as I can remember). Years ago, he would play along with the LP on his roundback Applause guitar, which was basically an Ovation for a person who couldn't afford an Ovation.
That Applause, with a weathered fingerboard, is now my guitar. Since then, my father has expanded his collection to include a refurbished vintage Stratocaster (which I play every time I go home) and a beautiful acoustic-electric model shiny enough to use as a mirror.
Now, that guitar was something that my father wanted for a long time. At the age of sixteen, he was put on a bus in Mitchelstown with a few pounds in his pocket and a ticket to Baldonnel, the main aerodrome of the Irish Defence Forces. He learned how to play by jamming with the other recruits in the shower stalls, where they got the best reverb on someone's cheap acoustic.
So eventually, he got his hands on that cheap guitar of his, and started strumming wherever he went. He would play in the pubs of Dublin with Luke Kelly and Ronnie Drew, and occasionally Matt Molloy who he worked with at Aer Lingus. Eventually, he got married and decided to try his luck in the United States, and that was how he found his way over on a TWA flight with nothing more than a few dollars in his pocket, a suitcase, and a toolbox, working his way up from a repairman in an old station wagon to a real estate investor in a high-rise condo on Hallandale Beach.
So that's how I ended up with his old guitar. When you have the money to buy a new guitar, an old and busted guitar just doesn't cut it anymore, I guess.
But, as it turns out, I love the old guitar. Something about it just feels right. The frets feel right, the body feels right, and the sound feels right, even though the body is ancient, every angle is worn to a curve, and the frets are eroded to the point where they're starting to resemble combs.
Now, that condo on Hallandale Beach overlooks a lot. To the west, you can see an infinite expanse of houses, warehouses, parks, and highways, laid out on a perfect grid as far as the eye can see. To the east, you can see the Atlantic Ocean, and beyond it, you can imagine the coast of Africa, the shores of Portugal, the cliffs of Kerry.
I used to walk to the bus stop with a girl who lived in the same building. Her family was Russian: her father was an engineer in the Red Army, stationed in Kazakhstan when the Soviet Union fell. I spoke to her on the phone last week: she's finishing her bachelor's degree, and getting ready to apply to law school.
I saw another friend of mine last week at a funeral. Her parents came here from Costa Rica years ago. Now she's working at an architectural firm and getting ready to start her master's degree.
Every day, there are people washing up on that stretch of beach that lines the coast of Florida. They're coming from Cuba and Haiti, clinging on to makeshift rafts for dear life, knowing that they'll be all right if they can just make it to shore without getting caught or killed or drowned.
The funny thing is that most Americans, whether they realize it or not, ended up in this country that exact same way... and so many of them don't realize what's out there in the world beyond our borders.
My best friend in high school couldn't take any more after his first year of college. He decided that he would move to Israel and study to become a rabbi there. And so his friends at the local temple found him a place to study, and he moved into a little apartment in the Old City of Jerusalem.
Before long, he realized his mistake: he had moved into a locale just short of a war zone. The Israeli government began trying to draft him for the army. He met a girl and got married: they were both nearly killed when the bus one block in front of them exploded, the target of a Palestinian suicide bomber. Finally, he scraped up the cash he needed to buy an El Al ticket home, and arrived back where he started with a suitcase and a family to show for his troubles.
Israel is actually on the better side of the international spectrum, even though you have to contend with all sorts of hardships in order to live there. Many Americans think that September 11, 2001 was the worst thing that could possibly happen in history, but it was really a minor incident compared to what some parts of the world have to undergo on a daily basis.
Here's what I've learned in my travels:
- America has the best health care system in the world, even if we have to pay for it (try getting sick or injured in Britain or Japan, much less Sudan, and see how fun it is).
- America has the most navigable social strata in the world, evidenced by the huge number of first-generation immigrants who find real livelihoods here from a starting point at the bottom.
- America has the best schools in the world (even if the kids don't want to learn all the time).
- In America, even if you're born with nothing, you can become the most powerful person in the country (cf. Abraham Lincoln and Bill Clinton).
And while our families might be pliable, our media corrupt, our politicians ingenuine, our heritage impossibly obfuscated, and our international reputation highly suspect, there's still no better place to build a life from scratch.
My country's got some problems (including a big problem named George W. Bush), but I still love it. Anyone who benefits from the privileges we have in America, but doesn't appreciate them, might as well try to live without them.
We have a great country on our hands. My dad's guitar never fails to remind me, nor does the view from that condo on Hallandale Beach.