I remember the morning in Mrs. Frye’s third-grade class when I first heard the phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people…” I thought it sounded cool and repeated it over and over in my head. It was 1959, and Mrs. Frye was drawing a stark contrast between life in the United States and life in Soviet Russia.
“In a free society like ours we make things fair for everybody. People who are willing to work hard can get good paying jobs and provide for their families. Students who do their homework and work hard to learn can grow up to be doctors and lawyers or even president, and they can buy houses, new cars, and hula hoops and take vacations. Life can be as good as they want to make it.
“In our system, your success in life is up to you. Anyone who is willing to work hard and play by the rules can have their part of the American dream,” Mrs. Frye explained.
“In Soviet Russia it’s different. Everyone there works for the government and is paid very, very little. Everyone is given a ration of food to eat and a small place to live by the government. The stores aren’t filled with lots of different kinds of clothes, toys or groceries. Shopping isn’t much fun in Russia because there isn’t a variety of things to choose from at the stores. Everyone has the same clothes to wear and all the same things as everyone else, and there is no chance to better themselves.
“Which system would you rather live under?” Mrs. Frye asked.
Everyone was sure the American system was better. Everyone except Melvin.
Melvin’s family was poor. Together with his brothers, sisters, and parents, Melvin lived in what could only be called a shack just outside town. The only meal he could rely on every day was the one he had in the school cafeteria at lunchtime. His clothes were all patched hand-me-downs from his older brother, and the family walked. Melvin’s parents owned no car.
There was no television set at Melvin’s house, and pots and bowls were strategically placed on the floor throughout the house to catch the water that fell through the leaky roof when it rained. To Melvin, Russia didn't sound so bad.
Melvin’s father was willing to work. He just wasn’t able. A few years earlier, at a young age, he had suffered a stroke that left him nearly blind and slurred his speech. Those who didn’t know him often thought he was drunk. No one wanted to hire him. No one wanted him around. Handicapped people don’t fare so well in America today. It was worse in the 1950s.
For Melvin, the American dream was a pipe dream. The dream of a big fine home, even a modest car, or even regular meals was surely only that—just a dream. The reality of his life was something different. In Russia, he figured, even if his father didn’t have a job, there would be food on the table and the family would have a place to live.
Even if things weren’t so hot under the Russian system, at least he wouldn’t stand out like a sore thumb—like the poor kid in the middle-class school. That was the worst part about his life. No matter how smart or funny or how good a friend Melvin was, he was also the poor kid. That made a difference in the 1950s. It still makes a difference today.
It would have been hard to convince Melvin that ours is the best country on earth. Melvin had no more faith that our free markets would produce a better life for him and his family than do the thousands of unfortunate Americans who are being evicted from their homes this week or the many thousands who will be forced into medical bankruptcy this year. When you’re on the outside looking in things look different. Still, Melvin was a kid. He wanted to believe.
When he graduated from high school Melvin promptly joined the Army. It was steady work, three meals a day and the best paying job anyone in his family ever had. Within a few months he was on his way to Vietnam. Within a few more weeks he was on his way home. He is buried not far from the school where we learned about the American dream.
The shack Melvin grew up in has been gone for decades. His parents have passed, and his brothers and sisters scattered to who knows where. One of them likely still has the American flag that draped Melvin’s coffin. From time to time they may come across it folded neatly in a box that sits quietly in a closet, and perhaps they are reminded of the American dream and what it costs people like Melvin. What it has cost them.
Just about every day one of my friends forwards an email chain letter with a “patriotic” message. Usually, it’s something like “Freedom Isn’t Free” or “God Bless Our Troops.” No matter what it says, I am always reminded of Mrs. Frye and “government of the people, by the people and for the people.” And I am reminded of Melvin.