Whatever happened to school paper drives? Or returning pop bottles for a penny or two apiece? Back in the 1950s when I was a student at Erwin Street Elementary, we had paper drives a couple of times a year. Students were encouraged to go around their respective neighborhoods and get as many discarded copies of the Los Angeles Times, Mirror, Examiner or Van Nuys News and Valley Green as possible and then bring them to school. I well remember the tens of dozens of bundles all carefully stacked high against the chain-link fence just outside the school grounds. Each stack was identified
by grade and teacher. Whichever class won, received a certificate and the undying gratitude of our principal, Mrs. Hodges, who informed us that in addition to being winners, we were, more importantly, being good citizens.
We didn't know it at the time, but paper drives were a holdover from World War II, when folks saved virtually everything from rubber bands, old pots and pans and the aluminum foil from gum wrappers to cooking grease and tin cans. It was part of the price one paid for being an American citizen.
Then there were all those soft-drink bottles (cans were, as I recall an extreme rarity). I remember the summer my sister Riki and I, along with our across-the-street neighbor Gary discovered that Mr. Harris' garage was filled floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall with bottles. (Being kids, we weren't aware that both Mr. Harris and his wife were, as they used to say, "common drunks," and all these bottles represented "mixers.") The three of us approached Mr. Harris and offered to get rid of all the thousands of bottles in his garage -- free of charge. He gave us permission -- along with a key to the garage door -- and we then proceeded to spend the rest of the summer taking all those bottles back to the Hillview Market, where we got anywhere from 2¢ to 5¢ a bottle. Over the course of that summer we took back virtually every bottle, wound up the proud owners of a shiny new red wagon (to more haul bottles in, of course) and, as I recall, $100 cash, which we split three ways.
The fact that Mr. Harris never threw out a single bottle was again, a holdover from World War II, when everything was saved, collected and turned in. Again, it was part of the price one paid for being a citizen. As with all things, the habit of saving, collecting and recycling that had begun with the war began to die out; the war -- and with it, the price of citizenship -- was becoming an increasingly distant memory. So much so that by January 1961, President Kennedy had to remind the nation to "Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country." The price of citizenship had become terribly devalued.
One other indelible memory of those days involves going to the downtown train station, the old Lockheed Airport, a ball game at the Memorial Coliseum -- anywhere one might see lots and lots of people. Among this mass of humanity, one could always count on a percentage of folks -- generally men -- being decked out in military uniforms. Today, anyone walking through an airport or mall wearing an Army, Navy or Marine uniform would stick out like a sore thumb. When you stop and think about it, it's rather odd that we rarely if ever see men or women wearing military uniforms; especially considering that we are still in the midst of waging the longest, most frustrating war in our history. Back in the day, everyone's father -- and some mothers -- had their old uniforms hanging in the closet gathering dust. During World War II my father served in the Army Air Corps as a weather forecaster; he was sent to India. As for my mother, she worked stateside in an Italian prisoner of war camp. Everyone did something; all part of the price of citizenship.
What about today? What is the price of citizenship? What is being asked of us? More importantly, what are we asking of ourselves? What is our definition of "The price of citizenship?"
Merely paying taxes?
Complaining about the folks in office and then not voting?
Having a growing fear that government is the enemy and that our leaders are selling us out?
Demanding either that government stay the hell out of our lives or that it solve our most pressing problems overnight?
Counterbalancing the price of citizenship is its promise. In his inaugural address, Barack Obama used precisely this term -- "The price and the promise of citizenship" -- to leave no doubt that citizenship was going to form the bedrock of his philosophy on rebuilding America. In that speech, he said,
"What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility -- recognition on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world. Duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining to our character, than giving our all to a difficult task. This is the price and promise of citizenship."
Now, nearly a year-and-a-half since the president first spoke those words, the message seems as foreign and as distant, as incomprehensible as the runic alphabet. People have become so angry, so frustrated and at loggerheads with one another that the message of citizenship -- that it has both a price and a promise -- has all but disappeared from view.
And yet, the reality persists; citizenship does require something from each of us. I for one would heartily endorse some sort of "National Service" legislation whereby every able-bodied adult serve the country in some capacity for a minimum of two years. It doesn't have to be the military, although I can see a couple of good reasons for reinstituting the draft. Back in the days when people were drafted, it had a democratizing effect on a couple of generations of American boys. My father often told me that as a result of serving in the Army Air Corps, he met, worked alongside and lived with people he otherwise would never have met; people from every walk of life and every inch of the country. As a result, I think he had a far greater sensitivity to other people than he otherwise might have had. Additionally, by reinstituting the draft, wars become far more personal; it's no longer "them" that are fighting . . . it's "us." I think that one of the reasons why the current generation hasn't put together a stronger, more vibrant anti-war movement is that they have no stake in it; it's not "their" war. Believe me: had a draft been instituted just after 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would never have lasted this long.
Further, I believe that through a program of national service we can put people to work performing the sorts of jobs and tasks done by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. There is so much infrastructure work we need done; why not put America to work doing it? It should be viewed as part of the price we pay for being citizens.
Then there is the promise of citizenship. I believe this promise involves equality of respect and dignity; of providing opportunities for people to escape poverty and enter the middle class; of protecting people from predators of all stripes; of ensuring that we are treated not merely as consumers, but as people of inherent human worth.
Is all this on the idealistic side? You bet it is. I know that many will disagree and anticipate receiving some ego-deflating email in the next couple of days. But if ever there was a country whose very basis is idealism writ large, it is ours -- a nation where the price and the promise of citizenship are likewise writ large.
©2010 Kurt F. Stone