America: Still ‘the beautiful’?

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Iconic greats James Taylor, at 68, and Jackson Browne, 67, still bring it. Big time.

By Michael Granberry

CHICAGO — On a cloudless night in late June, my wife and I began our vacation at Wrigley Field. Sitting in the outfield just a few rows back from the stage, we listened to James Taylor sing “America the Beautiful.”

Thus began my long period of introspection. Is it really “America the Beautiful?” Is it still? Despite Taylor’s velvet baritone insisting it was, I couldn’t help thinking of our national rage, of mass shootings, deep, ugly racial divisions and hopeless politics.

We had begun our 12-day vacation on the banks of Lake Michigan because I wanted to see my favorite singer-songwriter, Jackson Browne, team up with a fellow member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Browne and Taylor are iconic greats from the early 1970s, when I was in college, bursting with innocence and idealism.

Jackson and James did not disappoint.

Michael Granberry

Michael Granberry

With the sun still shining on the 102-year-old ballpark where Babe Ruth allegedly called his shot by pointing to where he would (and did) hit a homer in the 1932 World Series, Browne opened with “Rock Me on the Water.”

Oh, people, look around you, the signs are everywhere.

He played “Fountain of Sorrow,” from his landmark 1974 album, Late for the Sky; “Somebody’s Baby” from the soundtrack of Sean Penn’s 1982 breakout film, Fast Times at Ridgemont High; and “These Days,” which Browne wrote when he was only 16.

“These Days” ends with one of my favorite declarations:

Don’t confront me with my failures
I had not forgotten them

He played “The Pretender” and “Running on Empty” before inviting Taylor to the stage for a pair of duets: “Take It Easy,” which Browne co-wrote with the late Glenn Frey, who used the song as the Eagles’ signature anthem, and “For a Rocker.”

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A 12-day, multistate vacation began in Chicago with a concert at venerable Wrigley Field.

Then it was Taylor’s turn, and though I was there mainly to hear Browne, Taylor emerged as an AARP revelation. Browne is 67, Taylor 68. The tall, balding singer sang 21 songs, launching his two-hour set with “Something in the Way She Moves.”

He covered Carole King’s “Up on the Roof” and “You’ve Got a Friend” — which he said King wrote for him, back when Taylor, Browne and King were all performing at the legendary Troubadour in West Hollywood in the halcyon era of the early 1970s.

Taylor sang “Carolina in My Mind,” saying he wrote it in London, where he had gone at the invitation of a group called the Beatles to record his debut album on the Fab Four’s Apple Records. Despite the euphoria of reaching such a pivotal moment, what he mainly felt, he said, was homesick.

And so a classic song was born. He sang “Angels of Fenway,” drawing a smattering of friendly boos when he told the Chicago crowd how deeply he felt their pain. He’s a Red Sox fan who had to wait until 2004 to see the Curse of the Bambino — inspired by the Red Sox inexplicably trading the Babe to the dreaded New York Yankees – die a slow, painful death. After decades of futility and failure, the Bosox had emerged as champs. At the moment, Chicago is cautiously optimistic that 2016 will be the first time since 1908 that the Cubs might actually win the Series. (Footnote: Browne and Taylor played their second of two concerts on Aug. 3 at Fenway Park in Boston.)

At Wrigley, Taylor sang  “Fire and Rain,” one of the most magnificent songs ever written, about his friend Suzanne, whose suicide inspired this wondrous elegy, in the context of his own grueling battle with heroin addiction.

He sang “Sweet Baby James,” “Shower the People,” “Steamroller” and “Mexico” before giving me something to think about with “America the Beautiful.” He invited Browne to the stage for an encore; the two sang Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes.”

Taylor closed the show with his own fittingly sweet goodnight ode “You Can Close Your Eyes.” The 41,000-plus of us who populated sold-out Wrigley Field pounded toward the exits, most of us boarding the subway, where my mind continued to fixate on “America the Beautiful.”

***

Amid the clatter of the train as we returned to the downtown Hampton Inn, I chatted with a young woman who told me how much she loved Chicago, where, she said, she feels safe. “You have to know where you’re going,” she said.

It’s her kind of town, Chicago is.

She was warm, engaging and non-judgmentally curious about my hometown — Dallas — where I live with my wife and four sons. Everyone we met in Chicago was as friendly as that young woman.

And then we drove all the way to Cleveland, where I longed to see the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

I should tell you at this point that my wife and I were combining our several-states car trip with an informal book tour. Nancy Churnin, to whom I am married, is the author of a recently published children’s book, which is doing fantastically well. (Nancy even got a rave from The New York Times and from the great George Rede.)

[Editor’s note: Who am I to argue with the author’s adjective?]

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Outside of Cleveland, Mike and Nancy (the one without the bonnet!) helped a Pennsylvania-bound driver who was transporting a busload of Amish children by driving him to a restaurant where he could tell the kids and their parents that he was headed their way.

After checking out of our Cleveland-area hotel, we spotted a broken-down bus in the parking lot. Its poor driver was beside himself. He was transporting a busload of Amish children and their families back to their home in Pennsylvania.

Finally, the driver, who had driven all the way from Nashville, got his tire fixed. We helped him out by driving to a Red Lobster to tell the Amish kids and their parents that he was headed their way. That gave Nancy a chance to tell them about her book, which she never tires of doing.

“The William Hoy Story: How a Deaf Baseball Player Changed the Game” chronicles the life of William “Dummy” Hoy, who played in the 1800s and early 1900s and who may have been responsible for the hand signals that everyone now takes for granted.

The Amish kids seemed fascinated, enthralled, as kids everywhere tend to be about Nancy’s book. They were so cute! Not to mention incredibly friendly. Maybe Taylor is right, maybe it still is America the beautiful.

From the young woman on the subway to the Amish kids, I was being shown that it is, despite my raging cynicism.

At the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a spectacular building on the banks of Lake Erie, I met more friendly people, who love music as much as I do. There on the walls, I saw all my favorite musicians: Browne, Taylor, Simon and Garfunkel, Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, the Eagles, Elvis Presley, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

So many musical greats came from Texas! Those in the hall include Stevie Ray Vaughan, who like me is a native of Dallas; Eagles’ great Don Henley, who lives in Dallas; and native son Steve Miller, a 2016 inductee who graduated from Dallas’ Woodrow Wilson High School.

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Niagara Falls: “nothing less than amazing.”

From Cleveland, we drove to Buffalo, N.Y., and then in the improvisational chutzpah that only car vacations can produce, we drove all the way to Canada, where we stayed overnight and saw Niagara Falls, which is nothing less than amazing.

From there, we drove to the Catskills, where my wife and her Jewish family spent their treasured summer vacations, but not before stopping in Amherst, N.Y., where Nancy checked in at a Barnes & Noble bookstore. A sweet, young B&N saleswoman named Kaylee Willis took to the book instantly.

Again, America with its kindness was telling me it was beautiful.

Nancy, my brown-eyed girl, wept softly as she walked Thompsonville Road near Monticello, N.Y., remembering idyllic summers spent with her mom and dad, her grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins in the family’s Mountain View cottages. The Catskills are not what they used to be, but Nancy and I loved meeting a young Hasidic couple, who leave Brooklyn each year to spend their summers in the Catskills, just as her family did. Nancy saw a deer standing majestically on the same parcel of land where her grandparents had built their cottages and where their grandchildren played for years. The deer made Nancy feel better. These days, the land belongs to him.

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July 4 brought the opportunity to visit the grassy hillside where the Woodstock music festival unfurled over four days in 1969.

We celebrated July 4 by driving through the splendor of the Catskills to Bethel, N.Y., where the seminal Woodstock music festival was held in 1969, in August, the month I entered my senior year of high school. We strolled the grassy hillside where more than 400,000 people spent four historic days, awash in rain and mud, listening to the cacophony of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Crosby, Stills and Nash and so many more.

But the best thing about stopping at the Woodstock site was getting to meet Rhoda and William Pollack, a couple from New Jersey. Two of the kindest people I’ve ever met.

On July 5, we saw a mama bear and two cubs scamper across the highway as we drove to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., where my wife would speak and where my all-time favorites appear in plaques on the wall: Mickey Mantle, Ernie Banks and the one who became my friend, the late great Tony Gwynn.

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Tony Gwynn is immortalized in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

Nancy got a super-charged confidence boost about her Hall appearance from Kerry Featherstone, who works the night shift at our hotel in Oneonta, N.Y. Kerry gave Nancy the best hair-do she’s ever had. Kerry asked for $10. We gave her $20. Kudos to Kerry, who radiates kindness.

The next day, Nancy spoke to a packed crowd at the Hall, sharing with them the incredible true story of the great Dummy Hoy. Kids by the dozen asked her questions and (thank goodness) begged their parents to buy the book (which they did). The next day, Nancy did readings of the book at two Manhattan libraries, one in Harlem, the other in a Dominican neighborhood. The kids reveled in the story, asking her to read it to them again and again and again.

I could almost hear Taylor singing “America the Beautiful” as I drove our rented Subaru Outback onto the Hudson Parkway and gazed at the Statue of Liberty in the distance.
When we went to bed that night, we felt peaceful, so serene, as though we had savored the most exquisite vacation we’d ever had. And then we turned on the television.

***

Back home in Dallas, a gunman had fatally shot five police officers during an otherwise peaceful Black Lives Matter protest.

Suddenly, it was hard to sleep, just as it was on the night of Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, when, as a 6th-grader, I struggled with the grim reality that earlier that day President John F. Kennedy had been slain in my hometown.

The new atrocity occurred only a few blocks east of where Kennedy was assassinated, taking with him to his grave so much idealism and hope. In my mind, America hasn’t been the same since 11/22/63. Much of its beauty died on a street in my hometown.

I was hardly surprised the next morning, when our editors called, asking me and Nancy to each write a story on deadline. The newsroom had entered one of those voracious all-hands-on-deck situations.

We extended checkout two hours, wrote our stories and began the 12-hour trek back to Chicago for the flight home. We got there a bit early and ordered two “very berry” hibiscus drinks at a Starbucks in Park Ridge, Ill., where we met Rob, one of the friendliest baristas you’ll ever meet. We talked about the Cubs, the Bears, the Rangers and the Cowboys. We joked about the Rangers and Cubs meeting up in the World Series. Hey, it could happen! We exchanged contact info. I hope he’ll visit Dallas, as he said he would.

And then Rob told us something we didn’t know — quaint, bucolic Park Ridge is the hometown of Hillary Clinton. We drove by the house where she spent her youth, the Methodist church she attended, the library where she loved to read and where she made a recent campaign stop at the historic Pickwick Theatre.

Rob was like all the other people we met on our amazing vacation — warm, friendly, someone you’d love to get to know, the kind of sweet soul who makes America beautiful.

Not once during our 12 days of summer did we meet a single unpleasant person.

Not once did anyone make an offensive comment when we announced where we lived, as a few nasty people did on a car trip to Colorado I’ll never forget months after Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas.

Not once did anyone make us think that Taylor is wrong, that America isn’t beautiful.

And yet, back home, five Dallas policemen lay dead, their homicides apparently triggered as a response to the grotesque epidemic of policemen using deadly force all too often. The resulting carnage has left black men dead in Louisiana, Minnesota and too many other American locales.

Since we returned, Dallas has been a city in mourning, and yet, we have shared many beautiful moments. Our recent memorial service at the Meyerson Symphony Center saw President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, former President George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush share the stage in a show of unity. A Dallas gospel singer named Gaye Arbuckle filled the Meyerson with the most soulful, healing music you’ll ever hear.

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Gaye Arbuckle performs during the July 12 interfaith memorial service for the fallen Dallas police officers. Among those gathered were Jill Biden, Vice President Joe Biden, Laura Bush, George W. Bush, Michelle Obama and President Barack Obama.

At the moment, Dallas is a city pulling together. But as President Obama said, we have seen far too much of this. It has to stop. It will remain America the beautiful, but only if we let it. There have been too many examples of a country whose problems are beginning to feel … overwhelming, insoluble.

Don’t confront us with our failures. We had not forgotten them.

But we must act on those failures as soon as possible. Or it won’t be America the Beautiful.

Nor will anyone remember when it was.

Dallas photograph: Susan Walsh, The Associated Press

***

Michael Granberry is an arts and feature writer and a Sunday arts columnist for The Dallas Morning News. He is working on a book about the founder and first owner of the Dallas Cowboys, Clint Murchison Jr. 

Editor’s note: Mike and I met as college students when we were summer interns at The Washington Post in 1973, when the Watergate investigation was at its height. He was a groomsman in our wedding; some 43 summers later, I’m honored to call him my friend — even though he’s from Texas. He’s a prodigious, immensely talented writer with a great sense of humor.

Tomorrow: Lillian Mongeau, Mile 17

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7 thoughts on “America: Still ‘the beautiful’?

  1. Mike – You made me cry. I spent yesterday debating Trump fans and was barely able to arise this morning. This is not my country, the mantra in my head of late. Then I read your post this morning, a post that reminded me of the hopefulness we felt in the 60s. In spite of so much unrest, there were positive changes happening! We achieved so much then with civil rights, women’s rights, leading to LGBT rights … all framed by that incredible music of our time. My sadness comes from seeing so much progress that we worked hard to achieve – 50 years of progress – swooped away by the hate-filled rhetoric of one petulant cretin and the angry masses who won’t pay attention and THINK!

    So you made me cry. But more importantly, you reminded me of the goodness in America and that there remains that, and hope for better days. After all, my last tattoo reads in mirror image above my right breast, “there always is hope.” I should pay attention to it more. Thank you. I think I’ll dry my eyes and go play some Taylor and Browne now.

  2. It is still a beautiful country, with many things to commend it, especially its natural wonders, and the immigrants who still look to it for a better life. Thanks for taking us on your travels, Michael. I envy you seeing Jackson Browne and James Taylor together. I particularly like Jackson’s “Time the Conqueror”, that he wrote later in his career. Seems to fit me a little better nowadays.

  3. A beautiful trip through America the Beautiful. But one word jumped out at me. “It will remain America the beautiful, but only if we let it.” Let? That seems too passive, that it would happen without our effort. I feel like we need more intentionality in keeping America beautiful; the danger is in letting it slide into brokenness.

    Thanks for a great read.

  4. Beautiful, hopeful piece. And it speaks to your character: Nice people tend to meet/see/interact with nice people. We humans are magnets. United we stand — tall and beautiful.

  5. Mike – just re-read your piece (it is voting time!) and realized I had missed the line about Tony Gwynn being a friend. I watched him play for several seasons in San Diego and he was one of my all-time favorite players (after Willie Mays). Despite playing for a perennial loser (except for 1984), he personified a continual spirit of optimism and friendliness, each core attributes for this country of ours.

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