Three days hence most Americans will join in celebrating our nation's 231st birthday. Young folks think of 231 years as a really long time. Those of us old enough to remember Vietnam, Korea and World War II, however, know that 231 years is really not very long at all. For example, I'm 56; in my puny time here I've experienced one-quarter of America's entire history. My mother, still driving her car at 92, has been alive for almost half as long as the United States of America has been a nation.
As we approach July 4, I hope that every citizen - young and old - will pause to reflect on America, the nation. I hope that everyone will take some time to think through the events that led to the founding of this nation. I hope folks will think on what this nation was meant to be, and juxtapose that with what America has actually become. And I hope that, by comparing those two very different things, folks will come to a clear understanding in their own hearts and minds as to what America should become in the years ahead.
If you were put on the spot and had to come up with a quick answer, how would you respond to this: describe in three words what drove settlers in this "new world" to revolt against England and to put everything on the line to establish a new nation.
Did you come up with the phrase most school children have traditionally been taught since they were taller than a grasshopper? Did you think immediately, if not sooner, "No taxation without representation?"
That's what I was taught. And, back in the 1950s, children respected their elders and believed what teachers taught them. I wonder, today, how many of us stop and think about American taxation and representation. I wonder how many of us are pleased as punch with the quality of representation we receive at the local, state and federal level.
That thought leads to a fond remembrance of a man who represented me once - the late, great Charlie Norwood.
And let me say this, for the record, straight up: Charlie Norwood was the one and only elected representative at any level who demonstrated, in my lifetime, that he was concerned not only about what his district thought about things, but patterned his actions based on what people told him.
Let me tell you a true story about Charlie Norwood, a dentist from Augusta who for a time represented Newton County, Georgia, in the United States Congress in the late 20th century.
One fine day in 1994 I got a junk mail flyer from an unknown candidate running for Congress. Just as I was releasing it toward the trash can, my eye caught a phrase on the envelope which said "a special message for Georgia Southern graduates."
Well, being a Georgia Southern Eagle, class of '73, I took a look. Irritated that he was asking a poor but honest schoolteacher for money, I wrote a three page retort telling this guy that, in the first place, I had never met an honest politician. In the second place, I resented him pulling on my collegiate heartstrings in his quest for power and self-aggrandizement.
To my amazement, a week or so later I got back an equally effusive, hand-written letter from this man, Charlie Norwood. He explained how he was selling his dentistry practice to raise money to run for Congress; he was mad that his son had to work two jobs just to pay the normal monthly bills incurred raising Norwood's grandson. Charlie didn't think it was right for Americans to be taxed out the wah-zoo and have to work two jobs just to make ends meet. He hoped to be elected to Congress so as to make things better.
Needless to say, I was more than a little ashamed to have blasted this guy, and his reply won me over.
So I penned another letter, pledged my support to him and enclosed a whopping check for $10 asking for a bumper sticker and a yard sign if my 10 bucks would cover it.
Thirteen years ago this week, friends, I got a telephone call from Charlie Norwood. We didn't have caller ID back then. Cell phones weren't around, either. This man was calling me from one of those new-fangled mobile car phones which weighed about 10 pounds and sat on the transmission tunnel of your vehicle.
Charlie and his publicity man were on their way home to Augusta from Gainesville, where he'd been Grand Marshall for the July 4 parade. He wondered if he could swing by my house in Covington and talk about things to come.
And thus it came to pass that an hour later I sat down on my back porch under the ceiling fans with unknown candidate for the U. S. Congress Charlie Norwood, his publicity man, my wife Louise, and my cousin Fred. We sipped sweet tea and talked about America. Charlie lamented as to how what he believed the Founding Fathers vision was had deteriorated into an increasing morass of legalities and tax burdens on the middle class. He talked about how he hoped he could make a difference for the working class, and bring health and dental care to the working man at affordable rates, without compromising the integrity of the free enterprise system.
You better believe I voted for Charlie Norwood, friend. And you can know that, were he alive today and representing me, I'd vote for him until I drew my last breath.
Charlie Norwood was an honest politician, perhaps the only one ever. Certainly he was the only one I ever personally met.
So we come now to the matter of celebrating America's 231st birthday. And I wonder how we can best go about that, given that what is now doesn't match, in many ways, with what the Founding Fathers seemed to have had in mind.
A good friend of mine and I occasionally lament to each other how dramatically American values have changed over our lifetimes. I met Bill Larsen, an English professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, while studying the philosophy of Blaise Pascal at Notre Dame in the summer of 1989. Last week an insightful email from Bill read, in part:
"I think we have been shown so much and so often that it is not who you are that matters - but how much money and things you have. And we just have come to believe it. The sad part is, as a result the cost of everything just keeps going up. You pay more for it, and that makes you feel like you, too, are wealthy - except the middle class just keeps getting squeezed tighter and tighter."
In the legal section of our local paper just last week were 10 full pages, nine columns on each page, of property foreclosures. Not all of those foreclosures, to be sure, are the result of taxation. Many of them, though, reflect America's fixation on exactly what my buddy Larsen described - having more things and bigger houses in order to be someone who is thought... to matter.
But as we come to celebrate America's birthday and our independence, it would be prudent for us all to contemplate the state in which we find our American society today.
Charlie Norwood was a dentist. He shucked his career and everything he'd worked for, and ultimately his health, to represent the people over the last 14 years. He made every possible attempt to restore the American dream to us all.
Some folks may not share my fond recollection of Charles Whitlow Norwood, Jr. But they may not know that this son of Georgia was awarded two bronze stars for his service in combat in Vietnam. They may not know that he pioneered, by personal example, the practice of taking surgeons and dentists to the front lines, in lieu of bringing the wounded to the rear. In my mind, the fact that our wounded troops in today's areas of conflict experience greater survivability rates than ever before in our nation's history can be traced, in part, back to the work done by this Georgia dentist who found himself in a war halfway around the world.
Charlie Norwood spent most of his legislative time seeking to bring into being a patient bill of rights. It was twice compromised to avoid a presidential veto, which cost Charlie a good deal of support in the House.
I think, in the time I have left here, that to celebrate America I'll do whatever I can to lend support to his idea that affordable health care, and the right to sue insurers, should be available to everyman.
May God bless the memory and spirit of Charlie Norwood, and may God bless America. Y'all have a safe and happy, and thoughtful, Fourth of July.
Nat Harwell is a Newton County resident whose column appears Sundays in The Covington News.