Saturday, July 4, 2015

Choosing the Hard Way

Americans don't do things the "easy way." President John F. Kennedy stated this during the early days of space exploration: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” It’s easy to read a book and agree, “Yes, this was hard,” but what makes the idea come to life is being where history happened.

Washington Monument
South Mountain, MD
The “American way” of doing things can be traced back as far as the Revolutionary War. We could have paid the involuntary taxes to King George III, but a group of men who had had enough sat in a stuffy room in Philadelphia and decided it was time to rebel. It was in tiny Hopewell Furnace, a forge town in Elverson, PA, that arms were created; later the ironworkers used their knowledge to make world-renowned iron stoves. A smaller Civil War battle at South Mountain, unknown to few but the most die-hard buffs, kept the Confederates in central Maryland and not marching on Washington, DC. It would have been easier to say “We’ll let the main army get them,” but the outnumbered Union men in the mountains decided they weren’t letting the Confederates by if they could stop them.

When they realized easier passages to their north and south meant they were about to be left behind in commerce, the people of the Allegheny Mountains built a portage railroad to connect canals between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. It wasn’t easy to build a transportation system that could drag canal boats and their contents up and down mountains, but the designers did it anyway. At each of these places, I’ve looked at the area and just said, “HOW?” But these strong Americans didn’t stop with “How will we?” and kept going until they could say, “We did.”

Allegheny Portage Railroad NHS

Elvis' Outstanding Young Man Award (1970)
Graceland, Memphis, TN
This idea of “taking the hard road” is often called “The American Dream.” Probably one of the greatest examples is President Abraham Lincoln; looking at the tiny, remote home he grew up in shows that the desire to succeed can overcome the humblest of beginnings. Self-taught through reading and experience, he is the embodiment of “work hard and achieve greatness.” Our cultural history gives us the example of Elvis Presley. After their son’s birth in a two-room house in Tupelo, Mississippi, Vernon and Gladys Presley moved to Memphis to give their son a better life. Elvis rose to be called the “King” of rock and roll, and visitors to his home, Graceland, can see how he kept his promise to take care of his parents, and in turn used much of his wealth to benefit others. It’s impossible to not be impressed by the sheer volume of gold and platinum records and industry awards on display, but more telling of his humble roots was the trophy given to him as a 1971 “Outstanding Young Man” by the Jaycees. It is the only award he accepted in person, and it meant to him that not only had he succeeded in as a singer, but as a person.

Over the past two years, I have not only had the chance to read about history, but also experience it hands on. You could say I’ve had quite an American adventure. It's one thing to read about "they worked hard," but to experience it, you get an idea of just how "hard" hard was. Even looking at the Kennedy-era Apollo rocket, you wonder how did anyone ever think “Let’s see if this will send three men to the moon?” (Or, what made the astronauts decide “I’ll try it out!”)  More impressive: after seeing the tragedy of the Challenger explosion, what made the next crew say, "Put me on the next flight!"?

Space Center Houston
Houston, TX

This year, I’m celebrating Independence Day by exploring the people and events that made this country great. I want to encourage you to do the same. Choose not to simply read about them from your comfy chair because it is easy, but get out and experience America!

Cover image: Rice University Lectern used for Kennedy's "Because They Are Hard" speech, 1962, Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX

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