GROB: My American Friends

By James Grob,

Let me tell you about my American friends.

I wrote about them last year, and with Independence Day here, I thought it might be appropriate to write about them again. I’m guessing some of my American friends are a lot like some of your American friends.

I grew up with them, in a little town in Iowa, and they grew up with me.

James Grob
James Grob

Each of us is now at or above the age of 50, and some of us have been friends since before we were 2. We’ve lost a few along the way, and they’re never far from our minds.

I just saw them all a year ago, these American friends of mine. I hadn’t seen some of them in more than 20 years. We met at a little cabin nestled among the picturesque hills and valleys in northeast Iowa, not far from the mighty Mississippi River — a river right smack in the middle of the continent, a river so huge it divides America in half.

That is, it divides the landmass in half, but it couldn’t divide the people in half. It couldn’t divide Americans, because when it comes down to brass tacks, Americans are indivisible, and a river — even a river as imposing and powerful as the majestic Mississippi — can only slow us down. It can’t stop us from doing the essential things we want to do.

Americans see the biggest barriers not as the end of the trail, but as the start. A mighty river is a mere problem to be solved.

Americans build things. Boats. Bridges and barges. Canals and tunnels. Railroads that span from one coast to the other, with spurs to reach every little town, every village, every fort and factory.

Automobiles. Vehicles that can negotiate any terrain. Farm machinery. Airplanes. Devices that can put the entire world on your desk, or even in the palm of your hand.

Vast interstate highways, skyscrapers as tall as those mountain ranges, a mind-boggling communications web, entire industries devoted to surviving and thriving — and while we’re surviving, while we’re thriving, we’ll create entire new industries, just to keep us entertained. Television, movies, music, sports, information. We want it all, and when we want it all, we get it all.

Because we’re Americans, and Americans can make magic.

Don’t believe me? How does a grandmother in northern Minnesota get bananas and coconuts from the tropics for her dessert recipe? American magic.

A grandpa in Arizona can sit in his study and watch his 16-year-old granddaughter in Virginia shoot what would have been the game-winning basket — had it not bounced off the back of the rim. He can watch it live, as it happens. And his heart can break a little as he hears her cry, and sees her kneel down by the free-throw line, covering her face.

And grandpa wipes his own tear away before he smiles at her, into his face-phone a minute later, and says, “You played well, sweetheart. I’m proud of you. You’ll get ‘em next time.”

In America, we know we’ll always get ‘em next time.

But back to my old American friends, at that cabin last year.

We got together because of me. I had just finished a year of cancer, major surgery, recovery and chemotherapy — and at the time, I was at a point where none of us knew for sure if I had another year left — or even another month. I think some of my friends showed up because they feared it could be the last time they might see me.

Though we all came from the same little Iowa town, we’re all very different people, and we ended up in all corners of America. A CEO of a tech company in Atlanta. A vice-president of a parts supply company in Houston, Texas. An electrician in Cedar Falls. An artist in Cedar Rapids. A federal immigration officer on the Canadian border. A communication infrastructure specialist in Des Moines. A writer in Charles City.

A couple of us returned to our home town, and made lives there. One is a physical therapist, the other is an advertising specialist and part-time politician.

We each have our own individual worlds, but we are also one entity. No, we are not a melting pot, nor are we an alliance or a confederacy.

We are a collective soul.

Two of us grew up on farms. The rest of us worked on farms at one time or another. We are German and Irish and Norwegian and Dutch and Welsh and Mexican and Austrian and probably a hundred other things, and all of us had ancestors who, at some time in the past, decided to take a shot and head to America.

Some of my American friends are Catholics, some are Lutherans, some are Methodists. Some of us are other things, or maybe nothing, because in America, we can worship God any way we want — or not at all.

Four of us served in the armed forces and defended our nation. All of us snap to attention when the color guard goes by, all of us put our hands on our hearts for the Pledge of Allegiance — and when we hear the national anthem, we all stand and sing.

Some of us hunt. Some of us ride Harleys. Some of us play in rock ‘n’ roll bands. Some of us sing in choirs, or train dogs, or play rugby, or paint pictures, or perform in community theater plays. We all love football and beer.

Some of us are Democrats, some of us are Republicans, some of us are none of the above. And yes, we’ve all fought among ourselves from time to time. But we’re still one collective soul.

So when one of us catches a big smallmouth, or gets promoted, or runs in a 5K for charity, we all cheer.

When one of our sons gets married, or one of our daughters graduates from college, we’re all happy, as if it were our own kid.

When one of us has a parent die, we all cry a little.

When cancer picks a fight with one of us, it picks a fight with all of us.

These are my American friends.

If you fall behind, they’ll pull you back ahead. And if they can’t do that, they’ll wait for you to catch up.

And when you do, they’ll give you a slap on the back.

Or maybe a big, American hug.

That’s where the magic starts.