I don't remember the date, but I remember there was still time, as we dropped our youngest son off for a soccer game and began running along the nearest country road. We loved running amid fresh terrain and this journey led through valleys and glens and along creek banks, and I reveled in the brilliance of this brisk and sunny day. Ten or fifteen minutes later we stood atop a high grassy knob in view of Mt. LeConte and English Mountain and surveyed the landscape. We were middle-aged and graying, but we felt invincible in our new-found athleticism, like anything might be accomplished, like we'd cheated fate. We reveled in simple pleasures, such as this moment in which we stood chafing, perspiring in the cool, mid-morning air.
What a beautiful country.
We spotted our son below, chasing the ball around with his teammates, and Jeanne said something like, “We should be there to cheer. Let's go so we're there for him at break.”
And so we ran on across the grassy peak and down again—past palaces for some of the county's tourism-wealthy—then along Dolly Parton Parkway. We stopped at the nearest gas-and-grocery store and bought some sports aid with an Abe Lincoln I'd stuck in my pocket. On the way out I picked up a “U.S.A. Today” on the counter, and jogged on back to the field with it. Stopping to chat with another couple who sat draped in blankets on lawn chairs, we soon found a place to spread our own blanket and sat there stretching our legs, catching our breaths, basking in the wholesomeness of the sport, the good-natured cheering of other parents on this glorious green Saturday.
I watched our son running up and down the field. Bigger than most, his round head and sandy hair and questioning eyes sparked paternal love. He saw us and waved discreetly during a free-kick pause, then was off again, running better than last game, moving in the right direction.
The other team called a time-out and so I opened the paper—and the joy of the day evaporated. I don't remember exactly what it said, but it was a strange headline, something like, `US plans massive bombardment, invasion.' It seemed almost to gloat. Complete with charts and color graphics, the article outlined plans for striking Baghdad with overwhelming force. It predicted waves of missiles, jets and drones would strike targets all across Iraq, inflicting damage on key infrastructure elements in the first few hours and striking terror in the hearts of the people and especially that monster Saddam Hussein's most select corps. Then more than 100,000 U.S. ground troops would invade…..
The paper predicted thousands would die, but its tone seemed to be one of celebration. I looked around at our friends, smiling broadly, swapping laughs with another couple we knew. Did they know or care about issues like this? Were they glad we were going to attack? Did they believe Saddam had nuclear weapons? Mobile Anthrax labs? Al-Qaida connections?
Jeanne saw my expression, leaned over and read. I felt her fingernails gouge my palm.
What could our government be thinking? Didn't we have enough problems fighting in Afghanistan? Shouldn't we be attacking global warming, conserving energy, getting rid of Russia's leftover nuclear weapons? Securing our ports and borders?
“Mom, Dad, have you been watching the game?” It was our son, big eyed, burr-headed, chafing, chafing.
“We saw you sport,” I said as I set the newspaper down. The headline fluttered in a breeze that soon had our rapidly cooling bodies shivering. Ah, life in town and country, U.S.A. What could more wholesome? More deaf, dumb and blind?
I look back to that morning as the day when I realized just how venal, cynical and corrupt our government and big media had become. During the past three years of false intelligence, dishonest debates, corrupt elections, sorry reporting, declining environment, torture, spying, secret energy deals and big shows of patriotism, I've watched major institutions of this country sell out many of our most cherished values.
Most years when July 4 looms I write about silver linings and purple mountains majesty, but this year my heart's just not in it. I think it has something to do with that briefly beautiful Saturday that seems so long ago.
It could've been all different. There was still time.