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I Know Who Can Solve Our Problem

(Not that problem, the problem of our national divide.)

Bombarded as we are today by clinical details of the pandemic, the occasional story emerges of people doing something nice for others: making masks for neighbors, delivering food to shut-ins, or members of a church driving by the house of a young boy with a brain tumor and tooting their horns to show him love.

These stories are a wonderful break from the dark side of the pandemic – like the story, I heard the other day on our local NPR affiliate, WNYC, detailing how we are now burying the unclaimed and anonymous dead in mass graves on Hart Island in Brooklyn at a rate of five times more than usual.

The dark side of the pandemic reminds me of our larger national dark side, which is just as dangerous in its own way, and one that currently lacks a miracle vaccine – our deep political and social divide – our real distancing.

Let’s face it: If you truly know our nation’s political and social history, you recognize that we have always been divided in some significant ways. Racism, sexism, bigotry, anti-Semitism, anti-immigration, homophobia, and pro-this / anti-that forces are nothing new; they are part of our tattered, but unique national fabric, part of our unwritten Constitution. They contribute to the enigma that is America.

As a nation, we work, but oddly.

But just as there are forces that push us apart, there are forces force that can and sometimes do begin to pull us together. To be sure, they strain against our self-imposed quarantine – the mental border walls that demarcate our differences. And at best, their ability to chip away at those walls is incremental.

But I am an optimist and a romantic, and I will take incremental.

The forces are first awareness, then knowledge, and finally understanding of each other.

On the Road

In 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War – one of the more divisive periods in our history – CBS News began a series called On the Road. The program’s goal was to take us off the beaten path of America. Its host was veteran journalist Charles Kuralt, a jovial soul and just a bit portly – an image that doesn’t sit comfortably at the gleaming glass tables or on the sleek couches alongside today’s more cultivated Barbie and Ken news personalities. TV journalism, still in its infancy way back then, was covered and delivered by people who had cut their teeth covering World War II, the Korean Conflict, and, like Kuralt, the Vietnam War. But I digress.

For some twenty plus years, Kuralt and crew traveled in a motorhome across all 50 states, meeting, as he described them:

…a few people on the back roads of America. These are people you know, not from the front pages. They’ve never been on the front pages. They’re people you know from next door and down the block.

In a retrospective piece on Kuralt, journalist Scott Simon noted that 

Charles Kuralt thought viewers of the CBS Evening News (and later, CBS Sunday Morning) might like to be reminded of some of what was best about America.

I was a viewer. And through Kuralt’s deep North Carolinian-textured narrative and his cameraman’s unfailing eye, I was made aware of the America I didn’t know.

There were stories of

  • a Mississippi sharecropper who had nine children graduate from college.
  • a sandcastle-building competition in Sarasota, Florida.
  • a display of old steamboat whistles in West Virginia.
  • an 83-year-old man who built birch canoes in the north woods of Minnesota.
  • the first woman ever to become National Oyster Shucking Champion.
  • tombstones and how they explain regional culture.
  • a deli in Chicago where the owner abused and manhandled his customers in an effort to serve them all within three minutes.
  • a group of retired women in Green Valley, Arizona, who practiced synchronized swimming.

You get the point.

Kuralt’s voice wasn’t like a balm, it was a balm. For a few minutes a week, it was a salve gently spread over our riots and protests, and our systemic national divisiveness.

On the Road was perhaps the original reality TV before that genre was forever debased by today’s manufactured chaos, competition, tension, abuse, extremism, romance, and gluttony. During its life, On the Road helped capture some of that matchless fabric – what America also is: hard-working, artistic, collaborative, charitable, inventive, spirited, patriotic, and whimsical.

It’s ironic how we share those characteristics as our national backbone, but somehow lack the spine to find common ground.

Ain’t That America

OK, I don’t really think that watching DVD sets of On the Road segments or reading Kuralt’s various books will actually solve our national divide. No need to send me the name of a therapist whom you know to have a solid reputation for working with delusional individuals. I’m not that optimistic or that much of a romantic.

But I do know this: Unless I understand a little bit more about the woman who sat next to me on an airplane and why she needs thirty-one guns, and unless she understands a bit more about me and why I don’t, we’re not going to get very far bridging the gap.

But hey, we’ll always have John Mellencamp’s lyrics.

Oh, but ain’t that America for you and me.
Ain’t that America somethin’ to see baby.
Ain’t that America home of the free.
Little pink houses for you and me.

____________________

If you’ve never seen Charles Kuralt, or even if you have, ride along on the motorhome for a few segments:

Jeff Ikler
Jeff Iklerhttps://www.queticocoaching.com/
The river that runs through my career lives – as teacher, publisher, coach, podcaster and author – is helping individuals acquire knowledge, skills, and self-awareness so they can better achieve their desired results and impact. • As Director of Quetico Leadership and Career Coaching, I work with individuals and leaders to overcome obstacles and make sustained changes in their behavior. • I co-host the podcast “Getting Unstuck – Shift for Impact,” where I bring to light inspirational stories of transformation in the field of education. • I am the co-author of the soon-to-be-published book for school educators, Shifting: How Educational Leaders Can Create a Culture of Change.

13 COMMENTS

  1. Great writing, Jeff. Had to nod in agreement and chuckle a bit at Barbie and Ken news personalities. I’m not sure what to do about the great divide that seems to be getting larger. Unplugging from media bombardment might be a good place to start. My husband and I moved recently. We were without the major television networks for about a week after we moved and I must say I didn’t really miss it.

    • Thanks, Tammy. I, too, have given up on TV news. I used to watch MSNBC at 4pm est, but it’s devolved into more editorializing about the lack of leadership at 1600 Pennsylvania ave than reporting. I am angry enough on that subject without anymore help.

  2. Thank you for this, Jeff. As usual, I enjoy your thoughtful articles. I remember Charles Kuralt with his booming (I think) voice. I believe his mother was a social worker. As far as the questions you pose, well, I do not have the answer. All I know is that from what I have read, these divides have always been with us. Now, they are just more in our face.💖

  3. Very nice – and wondering if Kuralt was in some way inspired by Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley – published in 62?

    As for lyrics – may I offer a Bowie counterbalance to Mellencamp …

    A little piece of you
    The little peace in me
    Will die (This is not a miracle)
    For this is not America
    Blossom fails to bloom this season
    Promise not to stare
    Too long (This is not America)
    For this is not the miracle

    • Could very well be, John, but I imagine having covered the Vietnam War, Kuralt probably also needed the peace and imagination of a long uncertain road trip not punctuated by death. Thanks for the poem.

  4. Stunning writing Jeff, so much richness and opportunity. Let’s connect our spine and backbone via our hearts is my sense. We absolutely need to lean in and understand each others experience, no other way. thank you for this.

  5. I remember that show (the one featuring Bill Hafeman), Jeff. I met him when I was a kid. It was a brief encounter, yet stuck with me. I met another strip canoe and snowshoe builder in Ely, MN in my college years. Those two are the inspiration for me building my own snowshoes. The snowshoe building is pretty fast, although it took a few trials to get the lacing right. One of these day’s I’ll tackle my first canoe. I need a retirement plan, and I think there’s a future in canoes. . .

    Common ground, indeed.

    Nice work, my friend.

  6. Jeff, I loved the “On the Road” and I read the books that he road where he further chronicled some of those same stories. Immersion in the media today leads nowhere good, unless “good” for you involves stress, anxiety, seeing the glass as nearly empty, and it’s almost as if they want us to adopt an attitude of “Life sucks, why should even bother anymore”… Mike Rowe seems to have tapped into this somewhat as he seeks to bring attention to those who are laboring in less than glamorous stations in life. Those people right now, who we may have looked at as laboring in vain at pointless jobs, are many of whom are doing the work of keeping the wheels of this economy from going over the edge. There is a fabric and texture to this country, and it saddens me that some of the loudest voices in the land are those who seek to find every tiny little fissure in society. Instead of celebrating it as the spice and beauty of “different strokes for different folks” those fissures are jackhammered and split with force and anger so as to bust everything wide open and make sure that everyone takes a side. It’s up to all of us to go “On the Road” ourselves, to find these rubies in the rough or wherever they can be found. Thank you for this, we need to become the unifying forces ourselves, as the forces that seek to divide and to villify are working twice as hard, and have the much bigger platform. Well done, Jeff.

    • Tom, couldn’t agree with you more. If you want change, you have to make it at your level. There’s obviously big money to be made in divisiveness. Thanks for your read and astute commentary. I KNEW you would be a Kuralt disciple!

  7. Thank you for bringing back Charles Kuralt. I was born within a mile from being an American. The first television I watched was US out of Detroit. I watched our closest neighbor lead the world in so many things. I was also an armchair witnessed to your struggles.

    My cousins were born on the other side of St. Clair River The one key difference between literally and my American cousins was their family watch their farther who like mine was a veteran and member of the greatest generation die from cancer. They had to use their life savings to pay for treatment.

    If not now when will my American cousin to the south adopt a system to make affordable healthcare available to all.

    • Chris, in answer to your question, don’t hold your breath. There are clearly huge monied interests opposed to it. And there are clearly political forces opposed to it. ACA was a start, not perfect, but a start, and instead of trying to strengthen it / fix it, you have political forces trying to get rid of it without anything to replace it – in part because they don’t like “big” government. They don’t care about the millions who would go uninsured. Awful…

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