Having a legacy means something. Knowing how one fits into the grand scheme, and from where one draws identity and familial bonds is so important. Kids need to be taught their line and lineage and the history of their family, their home community, and certainly their nation.
My grandson is three years old and smart as they come. He’s right at that age where conceptual thinking is really kicking in. The other day we were together as a family and somehow the conversation turned to the fact that my wife and I are his father’s parents. I could see the wheels turning inside his head as it registered that the reason that these two folks that he calls Cap and Sweetie are in his life is because of our relation first to his Daddy. I knew that the bond had fully registered when I heard him later saying to my son, “Daddy, I don’t want your parents to leave.” That’s just good on a variety of levels.
Kids need to know their connections and be able to contextualize why they are where they are, how they fit into the broader narrative, and what brand they ride for. Too often missing now in the upcoming generations is the sense of history, and legacy, and destiny, that comes from being an American.
As we move into the holiday season with its gatherings and assemblies I want to encourage all of you to spend a few minutes recounting some history to each other and reminding one another how much we have as a nation to be thankful for. Tell them about Christmas in your own childhood. Recount your favorite stories and traditions. Tell the younger ones what you know and what you remember and give them a thread of understanding that they live in a nation so worth being a part of.
If you are over 50 like me then you may remember our national bicentennial year. 1976 was a whole year of celebrations and pageants and parades. I distinctly remember the big musical play that we put on at Chaffee Elementary in Huntsville when I was in the 4th grade. It was one of the first-ever televised school pageants and I was fascinated by the fact that I got to watch myself on video afterward. As a school project we made a huge Bicentennial quilt which hung in the school lobby for years. On the wall in that same lobby were copies of the Declaration of Independence, and the US Constitution on what was called a “Freedom Wall”.
But I also distinctly remember the Freedom Train, and I hope that some of you do as well. The Freedom Train was a 26-car red, white and blue train pulled by three freshly restored steam locomotives. Ten of the cars were set up as rolling museums and contained amazing artifacts of Americana. The intent of the Freedom Train was to bring the history of the nation to the people, many of whom may never have gotten a chance to go to the Smithsonian in the nation's capitol.
More than 500 treasures of American history were on board. Items in the ten cars were arranged for a car-to-car walk-through and included such things as George Washington's copy of the Constitution, the original Louisiana Purchase, Judy Garland's dress from The Wizard of Oz, Joe Frazier's boxing trunks, Martin Luther King Jr.'s pulpit and robes, replicas of Jesse Owens's four Olympic gold medals from 1936, a pair of Wilt Chamberlain's basketball shoes, a Moon rock, and so much more. I can remember being amazed that they had a travel chest that was allegedly used by one of the original pilgrims and being the knothead kid that I was I reached across the ropes to touch it.
The Freedom Train’s tour of all 48 contiguous states concluded 46 years ago this month. It made the rounds to America’s heartland and major cities from April 1, 1975, until December 31, 1976. More than 7 million Americans visited the Freedom Train during its tour, while millions more stood trackside to see it go by.
I toured the Freedom Train twice, once on a school field trip and again with my mother when she took my brother and me to see it. The Freedom Train was designed to make sure that Americans in all corners of the nation could get an opportunity to see some of the amazing items that demonstrate what this nation has become. The stories told in the Freedom Train took visitors on a tour of American triumph from its humble beginnings to landing men on the Moon, fighting wars on multiple continents, establishing the US as the industrial base of the world, forging civil rights, and more. It laid out that we are a nation with so much, and yet willing to share it with others.
The Freedom Train reminded us that we are a nation worth keeping by telling the next generation what the prior generations had done.
Think about who we are as a people. Let it set in. Think about the view that others have of us. It is humbling when you put it all in perspective with a thankful heart.
I have a book titled “Reagan, In His Own Hand”. It is a compilation of the handwritten speeches of Ronald Reagan throughout the years. Reagan was a prolific writer and self-drafted many of his speeches, and it is obvious in reading them now that Ronald Reagan believed in his core in the greatness of America.
One of those speeches was delivered in December 1976 and titled the “Hope of Mankind”.
As he wrapped up that speech Reagan quoted a British citizen who had written an open letter in the London Daily Mail just a few months before. In that letter, Sir Ferdinand Mount wrote to British society and other Europeans who were chastising the United States and he said this:
“What the world needs now is more Americans. The US is the 1st nation on earth deliberately dedicated to letting people choose what they want and giving them a chance to get it. For all its terrible faults, in one sense America still is the last, best hope of mankind, because it spells out so vividly the kind of happiness which most people actually want, regardless of what they are told they ought to want. We criticize,” he said, “copy, patronize, idolize, insult, but we never doubt that the US has a unique position in the history of human hopes. For it is the only nation founded solely on a moral dream. A part of our future is tied up in it and the greatest of all the gifts the Americans have given us is hope.”
If an outsider can say those things. If immigrants can see what we have. If a Freedom Train can give a knot-head kid like me a sense of wonder, then it is apparent that providing people of each next generation a sense of their connectivity to the past will only serve to enable them to better appreciate their future.
But make no mistake: it is an intentional thing. Appreciation of this nation is something that won’t develop unless we take it on as a purposeful mission to tie our past to our present.
So, teach your kids who they are. Tell them stories and facts and occasionally talk about history. Tell them about your time as a kid. Connect today’s children to the days past. We preserve who we are as a people by putting all of our past sacrifices, victories, and achievements into perspective.
Reagan also famously said that “Freedom is a fragile thing, and it’s never more than one generation away from extinction.” We preserve that Freedom by knowing and appreciating who we are as a people and teaching it deliberately to our children and grandchildren. As Winston Churchill once said, “A nation that forgets its past has no future.” We have to strive to always remember so that we never forget.