And this granite pedestal Bearing the words, “Pro Patria.”
What do they mean, anyway?
—Edgar Lee Masters, “Knowlt Hoheimer,” Spoon River Anthology
Years of playing with knives and guns and fire in the woods, killing small animals with shotguns, riding horses bareback with a handful of mane, and watching Mel Gibson and his son shoot Redcoats on a big screen shaped my early views on how to be a patriot. Then, in high school, I read All Quiet on the Western Front and The Things They Carried. I remember shaking in the pre-dawn cold one November while I strained to read Hiroshima in a tree stand with a .30-06 slung over my shoulder. My views changed after these books. No, this is real patriotism, I thought. What am I doing up here with my sights on Bambi? I never told my father that, as a boy, I was disappointed to discover none of my direct male ancestors on his side of the family had served since the Civil War. “Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,” Yeats writes in “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.” But unlike his Irishman, “A lonely impulse of delight” still didn’t drive my relatives to enlist.
I know now they were busy building wooden truck frames for troops in their Virginia furniture factories during World War II when people stopped outfitting their dining rooms. My great-grandfather and grandfather knew their gifts and how they could best serve their community and country—they kept local workers employed and their factories running to supply soldiers overseas with transportation. In their son—my father—I’ve also come to recognize a different embodiment of devotion to one’s country, one that transcends my limited boyhood views of patriotism. And in this generation, it occurs not in a furniture factory but at a NASCAR track.
My hometown in southwestern Virginia, once the “plug tobacco capital of the world” after the Civil War, became one of the world’s capitals for textiles and furniture in the latter half of the 20th century. But since the turn of the millennium, when manufacturing moved to Asia, the city of Martinsville and surrounding Henry County have experienced a steep decline in all things—economy, population, job rate, and the many other markers of public prosperity. USA Today named Martinsville the poorest city in the state in January of this year, and the city continues to have the highest unemployment rate in Virginia. “You got the feeling that not everything was OK,” a photographer said in a Slate essay last year after visiting the area.
Notwithstanding these rough times, the small town in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains has managed to maintain a NASCAR track, and, more important, it still hosts two races each year in the Sprint Cup Series—the stock car league’s premier set of competitions. The Cup Series’ oldest and shortest track, Martinsville Speedway brings in $170 million a year and preserves 3,000 full-time jobs for the state. Fortunately for Henry County, many of these dollars and jobs stay close to home. But it’s tenuous: I’m worried by a region that depends so deeply on two weekends a year. “The towns / are real, so fragile in their / loneliness,” Thomas Lux writes in his poem “It’s the Little Towns I Like.” “[A] flood could come along / (and floods have) and cut them in two, / in half.”
While I pray that a metaphorical or literal flood may never come, the people of Henry County economize, in part, by staying close to home. For the past 16 years, the Martinsville Speedway has hosted a free-for-the-public staycation celebration for the Fourth of July that brings thousands of people together. For the past six of these years, my father has led the fundraising for the event—an act of patriotism that has taken his eldest son six years to see.
As my father’s son and a son of Henry County, I wish it hadn’t taken me 17 years to see what Wendell Berry calls “the complex, never-completed affection for our land and our neighbors that is true patriotism.”
My first time in the stands was “Celebration 2001,” the third time the Speedway held the event. “The devil may have been in Georgia, but Charlie Daniels brought down the house,” the local newspaper reported, and I remember Daniels invited my youngest brother and other children in the crowd to dance on stage during his act. Daniels played the classic hymn “How Great Thou Art” near the middle of his set as dusk hit the track, and as many lighters as there were American flag T-shirts waved in the air. I kept my head down and hoped no one from my high school saw me in the middle of these people.
I’m more ashamed writing this now than I was sitting in the track’s stands among fellow residents and their kin (the Venn Diagram looks like one large circle) 14 years ago, as Daniels broke string after string during his performance. The population of Henry County hovers around 54,000, and two-thirds of that number came together this evening to listen to one of most famous fiddle players in the world and to stare wide-eyed at fireworks. Many in the crowd had never stepped inside the Speedway that put their humble hometown on ESPN’s SportsCenter twice a year. I didn’t consider any of the community benefits back then because I remained focused on separating myself from the spectacle and its admirers whom I then believed fell somehow beneath me.
I’ve attended the Fourth of July event at the Speedway only one other time—“Celebration 2003” with Tracy Byrd. “After nine rounds with Jose Cuervo / They were countin’ me out and I was about to give in,” Byrd sang in his chart-topping song that lasted until he hit 10 rounds and started over again. After two rounds of the Fourth at the racetrack, no one had to count me out—on my own accord, I never went back despite my father’s invitations each year. So when he stepped up to lead the racetrack’s Fourth of July fundraising efforts in 2009 to ensure the event would take place—with its bush-league country acts, creepy carnival rides, and famous neon red hot dogs (a recent vendor change caused a ruckus that made ESPN)—I wanted to ask my father, Why?
But I didn’t. I learned very early not to question his decrees: “Because I said so,” or “Does it matter? Just do it,” he’d reply. Except for the time he sawed a section of a two-by-four, which then fell and cut my brother’s head open during an Eagle Scout project, my father is good at tasks and has good reasons for them. He doesn’t often articulate these reasons, but when he does, I don’t recall a time I didn’t walk away with my tail between my legs. So in 2009, because I suspected my father wouldn’t entertain his ungrateful son’s questioning of his endeavor to keep this hootin’ and hollerin’ event going, and because I was afraid his explanations would expose my pretentions or poor character, I didn’t ask. The Speedway’s celebration has survived each July for the past six years because my father managed to wrangle enough funds from local businesses to keep the event afloat—and to ensure the festivities remained free for the public. And here I was, telling him I wasn’t going and pretending “superior” versions of patriotism filled my planner.
They never did, and I didn’t comprehend my father’s patriotism until after I received this year’s Speedway invitation. I declined, and my father told me he had to raise funds differently this time by not doing it all by himself. A few weeks after our conversation, I learned more from his statements to the local newspaper: “Over time, the economy forced reductions in some of the amounts [of donations] and to keep up the same level of professionalism and fun, we had to reach out a little wider.” On deciding to enlist his colleagues to help him this year, my father admitted, “It’s too much to put on one guy.”
Yet for six years, it was one guy—my father—in whom the community vested the task of bringing its people together in celebration. That the county’s residents can gather for free to honor their home remains the only thing that anyone, including my father, cares about. As my father’s son and a son of Henry County, I wish it hadn’t taken me 17 years to see what Wendell Berry calls “the complex, never-completed affection for our land and our neighbors that is true patriotism.”
Berry writes in another essay, “The patriotism ... that grows out of the concern for a particular place in which one expects to live one’s life is a more exacting emotion than that which grows out of a concern for a nation.” My father has never been one for displays of nationalism, but he advocates and acts for the local—for the place he’s lived his life and for the county that encompasses an old company town sharing our name—like it’s his job. Lux ends his poem about the fragile little town and the flood:
It rains, it rains
in these towns and, because
there’s no other way, your father gets in a rowboat
so he can go to work.
Unlikely Patriots is our series of essays for July 4th that celebrates surprising, forgotten, and/or contrarian expressions of love for one's country.