19 December 2008
Silence and Respect
Paul, my day driver, has bought an iPhone, and we share the mounting bracket. I pull my phone out at the end of a shift, he plugs his in, and the music and images continue. We're multimedia cabbies, albeit on a very small scale, and the passengers have to lean close to see the details.
Yesterday, about three in the morning, he plaid a music video that sent thrills up my spine. Trace Adkins' song "Arlington", in a moving video. A gravestone flickers onto the screen for an instant, that of Patrick Ray Nixon, for whom the bridge is named. There's a deeper message buried there.
But on the surface, the song explores a rich theme of American life, the tradition of duty and service, bearing arms for the nation. Arlington is perhaps its greatest expression - a dedicated resting place in sight of the nation's capital - and a pleasant place of grim reflection. Conceived in Civil War spite, the headstones stretching out from the very door of Robert E Lee's Virginia home, it is now an estate of majesty undreamt of in those days when the Union, like the Washington monument across the Potomac, was an unfinished stump.
I walked briefly through the rows of graves a few weeks ago, struck again by the beauty of the place. It is one of those things the Americans do so well, but also a reminder of my attitude towards the USA. Here those who gave their lives are treated with dignity and respect, the corporals and the presidents in site of each other. Yet over the river, living through the bitter winter in the snow, resting their heads on stone pillows amongst the monuments, one may find military veterans making the poorest of lives in the capital of the world's richest nation.
When death inevitably comes, those who wouldn't spit on the living man salute his dead remains when they lay him below the lawns of Arlington.
Much as I love America, there are things there to hate. Arrogance, incredible stupidity, inefficiency and ignorance on a colossal scale. And many other things. How could a nation that fought a great civil war, supposedly to free the slaves, then keep them downtrodden and humiliated for another century? Jefferson's high words of equality rang out in every American schoolhouse, but they echoed in empty heads, apparently.
And yet, it is the words of America's founding fathers that I hold close to my heart. They stood up against tyranny and they brought forth a great modern democracy. Here the refugees from prejudice and oppression could create a new life. The sight of the Statue of Liberty greeting arrivals to New York, never fails to move me. The generosity, the friendship, the warmth of Americans and the genuine strength of each welcome keep me returning. No nation is perfect.
Last night I picked up a passenger from Civic. He'd been having Christmas drinks with friends, and he made me happy by naming a distant suburb. He spotted the iPhone, and an image on it - maybe the Iwo Jima Memorial, maybe the eternal flame above JFK's grave - set him talking of his two years posting in Washington. He was an army officer, and initially suspicious of years to be spent amongst politicians and bureaucrats, he quickly grew to delight in DC. The museums and the memorials, the people and their pleasures, it was all over too soon, and he yearns for the day he returns. We mentioned some of our favorite places. The National Building Museum, the Museum of American History, San Francisco and New York. He guided me into his street and summed it all up: "I love America".