In his song What Made America Famous? Harry Chapin tells the story of a small town feud between the local volunteer fire department and
The kind of kids that long since drove our parents to despair.
We were lazy long hairs dropping out, lost confused, and copping out.
Convinced our futures were in doubt and trying not to care
The "hippies" shared a rundown slum with black welfare cases and were shadowed by the police wherever they went. In retaliation, they paint a swastika on the fire house door.
Things change, however, when the building catches fire. The firefighters are initially reluctant to respond but one of them threatens to go alone and shames the others into responding. In the course of the fire he rescues the narrator of the song, his girlfriend and two children who are trapped on a ledge. But he goes further: he opens his home to the victims of the fire.
We spent the rest of that night in the home of a man I'd never known before.
It's funny when you get that close, it's kind of hard to hate.
The identification of outsiders through visual cues is bred into us from prehistoric times. It was a defensive mechanism used to identify potential threats, i.e. people who were not members of our tribe. But in our multi-cultural society, we may well have outgrown the need to classify people by their differences from us. It’s easy to hate “those people” but it’s hard to hate someone you have taken the time to know. There is a reason that Zulu warriors greeted each other with the phrase, “I see you.” Differences don't seem important when you're faced with disaster.
As someone who spent years in private security in the US and abroad and has dealt with national security issues, I’ve seen the dark side of human nature. But the one thing we see over and over in disasters is the willingness of ordinary people to extend a helping hand to total strangers. And it’s not just those who have a responsibility to help, like the firefighters in Chapin’s song. In the aftermath of the Loma Prieta earthquake, the biggest jerk on our block knocked on every door to ask if everyone was alright and if they needed any help. He even refueled the patrol car of the local cop who was constantly writing him parking tickets.
Chapin’s narrator undergoes a change because of his experience in the fire and the song ends with him dreaming of a world where everyone works together to build a better country. It's a dream many of should keep in mind in these troubled times.
I had the kind of a dream that maybe they're still trying to teach in school.
Of the America that made America famous... and
Of the people who just might understand
That how together, yes we can
Create a country better than
The one we have made of this land,