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Healing the Heart of America, creative nonfiction from Jeff Rasley

I was three years old when my parents bought their first house. It was located a few blocks from Main Street and not far from the downtown business district in Goshen, Indiana. In 1956 our “inner-city” neighborhood had scads of other baby-boomer kids. Most of the houses were modest, sided with clapboard, and had small yards. There was one vacant lot where we had massive football and baseball games with ten or twelve kids on a side. 

Four years later my dad got a promotion. We moved into a larger three-story house on the edge of town with a big yard which sloped down to a canal behind the house. Across the canal was open farm land. My brother and I restored a decrepit row boat we bought from an old duffer who lived up river from our house. We’d paddle down the canal and meet up with other barefoot kids at the junction of the canal and the Elkhart River. Our gang in cut-off shorts and t-shirts captured frogs, turtles, and crawdads along the muddy banks of the river. On Saturday afternoons boys and girls in my country neighborhood met our friends from “inner-city” Goshen at the lot below the town water tower to play football, baseball, or kickball.

There were times when I loved the solitude of wandering through the woods or paddling by myself up the canal. But the most fun activities were always some form of play with other kids. A lesson ingrained into my consciousness as a child was that the most meaningful activities were in cooperation with other people. 

That is a lesson our troubled and polarized nation needs to relearn. Trusting others to cooperate ceases when we see our neighbors through myopic partisan lenses.

My own willingness to trust others was radically tested when I first ventured out on my own away from my hometown. After one semester of college, in 1971, I dropped out, ran a punch press in an auto-parts factory for six weeks, saved up sixty-five dollars, and then spent eight weeks hitchhiking around the Midwest and South. Every time a car door opened and a ride was offered, I trusted a stranger and a stranger trusted me to share the small space within the interior of a vehicle. 

I spent a couple hours in a car with a man who lived in the backwoods of Kentucky. He shot squirrels and trapped rabbits for food. The interior of his old Chevy was ripped out. I sat on the metal floorboard as we rambled through Kentucky hill country. He was excited about the possibility of making a few dollars by selling the rabbits caged up in the back of the car. “Al” dropped me off in Pleasureville, Kentucky. I didn’t get a lift out of town before nightfall. I asked the town constable if I could sleep in the jail. Instead of locking me up in a cell, he took me to his daughter and son-in-law’s house. They fed me a huge slab of roast beef, a pile of mashed potatoes with gravy, green beans, and a slice of apple pie. I spent the evening with their four young kids at the local YMCA, shooting hoops and playing ping pong.

Friendly students on college campuses from Ball State, in Muncie, Indiana, to the University of Miami, in Coral Gables, Florida, let me crash on the floor of their dorm rooms or bunk in their frat houses. A fellow hitchhiker I met up with on I-75 was just discharged from the Army. He was making his way home to Key West, where his family owned a seafood restaurant and a shrimp boat. To welcome her son home “Jim’s” mom prepared the most elaborate seafood meal I’d ever eaten. She offered me a job on the shrimp boat. I declined but enjoyed fresh seafood, clean sheets, and a warm shower for a couple days.

On my way back home I was amazed when a shiny, red Ferrari stopped on I-65 to give me a lift. The driver told me he was trying to live like Jesus. He had turned forty, sold his business, and learned the trade of carpentry. He warned me we’d have to stop every time we saw anyone in need. The Jesus man in a Ferrari meant what he said. Our progress on I-65 was slow, because about every half hour, we came across a motorist who’d run out of gas, had a flat tire, or needed a push out of a snow bank. 

The winter of 1971–72 was a troubled time. The Vietnam War dragged on, and Civil Rights were unfinished business. It wasn’t as bad as in 1968, but there were still mass protests, riots, bombings by radical dissident groups, and fury in those with progressive ideas that Richard Nixon would be re-elected in a landslide victory over the antiwar candidate, George McGovern. And yet, within that terribly divided America strangers from northern Indiana all the way to Key West opened their car doors and homes to offer this stranger kindness and hospitality. 

The following year, in the summer of 1973, I hitchhiked from Southern California back home to Indiana. My hometown friend Tim and I lost our motorcycles in a wreck down in Mazatlan, Mexico. We had enough money left to buy train and bus tickets to get up to Los Angeles. From there, we planned to thumb our way back to Indiana. 

Off the road, near the Railroad Yard outside of Bakersfield, California, we stumbled into a hobo camp. Old geezers who looked like they’d been riding the rails since The Depression shared with Tim and me the soup and beans they were cooking in tin cans over a little sterno grill. When Tim and I tried to hop a train, the railroad cop who caught us drove us to the bus station instead of arresting us. He bought ten-dollar Greyhound tickets for each of us, which got us as far as Grand Junction, Colorado. 

Outside of town, on I-70, four teenagers from Rochester, New York, who were driving home from Las Vegas, picked us up in their daddy’s Lincoln Continental. The car ran out of gas in Eastern Colorado, when the Arab Oil Embargo forced gas stations all across the country to close. A farmer let us buy gas from him so we could press on toward home. The guys from Rochester gave Tim and me a ride all the way to South Bend, Indiana.

Americans were as harshly polarized back in the early ‘70s as now. Divisions over the Vietnam War and race relations ran deep. Members of Nixon’s “silent majority” were not the least bit shy in expressing their disgust with hippies, peaceniks, and Jesus freaks for their long hair, weird clothes, and affinity for sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. The generation gap between WWII parents and their baby boom children was real and often real ugly in its divisiveness.

And yet, people of all ages helped Tim and me along the way back home. Despite our scruffy appearance and attempt to break the law, that railroad cop bought bus tickets for us. A Colorado farmer, who might need every ounce of gas for his machinery during the Arab Oil Embargo, let six long-haired teenagers buy ten precious gallons. 

The kindness of strangers raised us up as on eagle’s wings and brought us safely home. Joe Biden quoted the popular religious song On Eagle’s Wings in his speech the evening of November 7, 2020, accepting his electoral victory over Donald Trump. President-Elect Biden was quoting the song lyrics to describe how the country can take solace in God’s love during troubled times, as Joe did when his son Beau died of cancer. On Eagle’s Wings was sung at Beau Biden’s memorial service. But the central theme of Biden’s acceptance speech was not theological. It was about the goodness of the American people, that we are good enough to overcome the deep divisions and partisan polarization that reached a crescendo during the Trump presidency. The Biden-Harris message of hope is that Americans are strong enough, sufficiently resilient, and good enough to reach across the divide, to break out of hyper-partisanship, and to remember the democratic values and norms that bind us together as Americans.

My experience of America, when I hitchhiked across the country from north to south and then west to east, forty-five years ago, instilled a deep belief that Joe Biden is correct. We can break down the walls that divide. We need not agree on all policies and solutions, but we surely must agree that there are serious problems to confront together. Those challenges mentioned in President-Elect Biden’s speech, controlling the pandemic, reinvigorating the economy, racial justice, healthcare, and dangerous climate change are the headliners. And other, as yet unknown challenges no doubt will arise to bedevil the nation. 

Yet, no matter the challenges down the road, we can overcome them by opening our doors to each other and to see each other as fellow Americans, not domestic enemies. That’s how we heal the heart of America. 

image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Jeff Rasley is the author of eleven books and numerous articles. His photographs of the Himalayas and Caribbean and Pacific islands have been published in several journals. Rasley is the founder of the Basa Village Foundation and co-founder of the Jeff and Alicia Rasley Internship Program for the ACLU of Indiana. He is the US liaison for Nepal-based Adventure GeoTreks and a writing coach and editor for Midsummer Books. Jeff is a lawyer, has taught classes at Butler and Marian Universities about philanthropy, and leads memoir-writing workshops at the Indiana Writing Center.