Twenty years ago, on the bright spring day when Al-Qaeda terrorists crashed two hijacked jets into New York City’s World Trade Center complex, my then-wife and I lived about a half-mile north of the carnage. I thought I would never again witness such a horrifying day in my lifetime.
Then came Wednesday.
All of us watched with fear and trembling as thousands of domestic terrorists attacked the very citadel of our nation, the United States Capitol, because they believed a lie — a lie fed to them maliciously by the man who will leave the Office of the President in less than two weeks.
As I watched my social media feeds, I quickly noticed that the revulsion seemed almost universal. Friends of mine who in the past would have argued with me vociferously about politics were appalled, too. “I have voted Republican my whole life,” one wrote, “but enough is enough.”
In that comment, I sensed a yearning for the sense of unity that once bound Americans together, a sadness that we had lost something essential to who we are. And it reminded me of what I saw 20 years ago on the day after 9/11. I walked out of my apartment building onto the oddly silent streets of Greenwich Village, and everywhere I looked I saw American flags waving from windows, each one of them speaking to that same urge for unity, every flag begging us to come together.
The question that looms in my mind today is this: How will our nation heal itself? Can it even happen this time? And one thought keeps ringing through my head, ceaselessly:
I want my Daddy.
I don’t mean this in the way an upset child would mean it. I mean that my father, Clarence Reece, lived through some of the greatest upheavals in American history, but he never lost his allegiance to a big idea: his strident belief that we are all in this together.
So, when I say I want my Daddy, I’m saying simply that I wish more than anything that he was still on this earth to talk with me about what we saw this week. I want his wisdom. Dad died 17 years ago, but this week, I want so badly to feel my old man’s dedication to making peace with himself and everyone he knew.
That’s why I write this column today. Perhaps, by walking myself — and you — through Clarence Reece’s history and how his beliefs came together, I can find some hope. Again, not just for myself, but for y’all, too.
Daddy was full of the wisdom one can gain only through bitter experience. He grew up the 11th of 12 children on a farm about 10 miles south of my hometown of Ellijay, Georgia, and about a quarter-mile north of Pleasant Valley Baptist Church, which was the center, the very anchor, of the community of farm families who lived nearby. These people took care of each other.
The Great Depression hit our nation about the time Daddy turned 10 years old. He told me many stories about the difficulties of making it through the Depression, about how his family did everything it could to step up its food production to feed a 14-person household. He told me about how families in the church shared what they had with each other, so that all could survive and prosper.
The next great threat to our nation came with World War II. Daddy was drafted late in the war. He landed in Normandy a few days after D-Day and fought his way through Germany, France, and Belgium. Private First Class Reece survived the Battle of the Bulge and somehow made it safely back home to Ellijay.
Dad was reluctant to share his war stories with me when I was young, but when he reached his 70s, they came flooding out of him, and most of them communicated how he and his unit fought to keep each other alive while doing their duty. Once again, like his stories of the Depression, they focused on the central idea of regular human beings acting in selfless service to one another.
I saw that value displayed in everything Daddy did. When I was a kid, he worked as an insurance agent, and I spent a lot of his time in his office and listened in on many conversations between him and his clients. Some folks might think that being a small-town insurance seller was a simple workaday career, but I learned that Daddy saw it as something bigger. He knew that each time a farmer or local businessperson came in needing his help, he was making them a promise that he would be there for them and treat them fairly. And as I grew older, I learned that his values kept his business growing more effectively than any deals he could offer. People wanted to buy their insurance from Clarence Reece because he was interested in more than just taking in their premium payments: They knew him as a man who would keep his promises to them.
I think about this simple man, my father, and his life of selfless service, and I wonder what he would say to me about where this nation is now. The events he lived through were also times of great political division. During the Depression, there were those who believed firmly in the New Deal relief programs of President Franklin Roosevelt and those who believed he was going too far. During World War II, both Roosevelt and his successor President Harry Truman faced withering criticism.
I think what my dad might tell me about life in America today is that I should worry less about the division, and instead trust in the thing he always believed in: that in times of trouble, people who live together will ultimately come together and take care of each other. While hoping for that might seem like a foolish endeavor this week, I want to place my faith there, anyway. I think that if I want to be a good citizen of this nation, and if I want to live by the values he raised me with, then I have no other choice. Perhaps we all face the same choice — to do the hard work caring for each other. To do so requires discipline. It's not like flipping a switch. it takes work and practice.
I like to think that my Dad and I would sit down to talk, and that he would tell me to remain faithful to that idea, to make that choice. And I think he might pull one of his history books off the shelf — he was a voracious reader — and ask me to read the ending of President Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address, delivered right before the American Civil War began in April 1861:
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
My father always chose the better angels of his own nature. I want more than anything to live up to his example. Think of me as naive if you will, but it’s the best answer I can come up with, at least for today.