The spectacle of men and women at President Trump’s rally in North Carolina on Wednesday chanting “Send her back!” depressed me so much that I could only watch for 10 seconds before turning the channel to a baseball game for mental relief. To see the president intentionally provoke hateful cheers against Ilhan Omar, a Somali refugee, U.S. citizen and elected member of Congress, was a reminder to me that America has been through this too many times in too many ways.
I’ve spent much of my career as an author and journalist documenting variations on the same ugly themes, from the McCarthy era of the ’50s to Vietnam and civil rights in the ’60s to the political sociology of today. Do you love America? If you don’t love it as we love it, you must be a pinko, and if you’re one of those, or sound like one of those to us, and especially if you’re black or brown and don’t look like us or talk like us or believe what we believe, you are not a real American and don’t deserve full rights of citizenship and probably hate America, so get out. Love it or leave it. I’d been an optimist most of my life, skeptical but not cynical, but the realization that, despite my belief in the gradual ascent of humankind, racism and xenophobia were resurgent left me dispirited and feeling naive.
Then I thought about Jim Shelton, a retired brigadier general whose funeral my wife and I had attended at Arlington National Cemetery a week ago. Big Jim, I called him, because everything about him was big until the day he died in October (while on the dance floor, fittingly, at a birthday party) at 82 — his body, his voice, his enthusiasm, his family, his love of people and his love of country, which he had served as an Army officer most of his career. As much as I missed him, I was glad he was not around to hear about the depraved Trump rally.
Big Jim had been my friend for 20 years. He was the first soldier I called when I started researching a book that would deal in part with a horrific battle in Vietnam where the vastly outnumbered Black Lions battalion of the First Infantry Division got trapped and virtually destroyed in a Viet Cong ambush. A major then, Shelton had just been promoted out of the battalion but was nearby, listening from a base camp on the military radios, as men he had commanded or served with, including his best friend, Lt. Colonel Terry de la Mesa
Allen, were killed in the battle. It was the defining day of his life, one that he would later write a book about and that would stay with him forever.
What does it mean to be an American? No chanting pseudo-patriot at the Trump rally could match Big Jim’s devotion to his country, as we were all reminded at his Arlington burial. After the service at the Old Post Chapel at Fort Myer, the horse-drawn carriage carrying his casket slowly click-clacked along two miles of winding paths through morning sunshine to the gravesite in Section 57, where mourners gazed into the blue yonder to see and hear four Huey choppers — symbols of that long-lost Vietnam War — thumping toward us in a haunting flyover array. Brass from the Army band played “America the Beautiful” as a folded flag was presented to his eldest daughter, and a lone bugler in the distance pursed his lips for the sorrowful taps.
Part of Big Jim’s bigness was his buoyant embrace of people of every color, nationality and creed. One of the things he loved most about the military was the fact that it was better integrated than almost any other U.S. institution. And he walked the walk — he directed his philanthropy toward organizations that promoted racial justice. At the reception at Patton Hall after his funeral, it was a story told by one of his eight children, Paul Shelton, now a colonel, that came back to me as I tried to process how I could respond to the malice of the latest Trump rally. I doubt whether Gen. Shelton agreed with Rep. Omar about everything, but Paul’s story reinforced the idea that his father would have put his life on the line to defend her American rights.
The Sheltons were on the road somewhere, dad at the wheel, the gaggle of kids packed in back. They stopped at a service station, where Big Jim went to the men’s room and emerged in a rage. Uh-oh, Paul thought, we must have done something wrong. But it was not the kids. It was what their father had seen on the bathroom wall — racist graffiti, including the n-word. Big Jim marched into the service station, ordered the attendant to get soap, rags and a bucket of water to scrub those words of hate off the wall, and declared that he would stand there supervising until he was satisfied. “It was a life lesson for all of us kids,” Paul recalled.
And a lesson for us all. How do you love America? Stand up against narrow-mindedness and racism. Don’t turn away. Stay with it until you have done all that you can do.