Whenever I’m overseas for extended periods, I yearn for the American landscape. Raised on the Hudson and the then-undeveloped, inlet-and-bay-fractured eastern tip of Long Island, I have many times written about the farmlands and forests between the Berkshires and the steeply descending Hudson Highlands. And then there are the empty beaches of Amagansett, windy and dazzling, from which I used to watch distant sails shining in white as they glided over the cold patches of deep blue, the sudden bursts of sun, and the dark shadows of the Atlantic. Just the train ride out there on the Cannonball Express, its windows open, sparking cinders flying by and sometimes burning you, was beautiful and dramatic and is now gone.
But as I’ve aged, I’ve come to think that landscape is less an emblem of America than are its admirable and unsung people: at risk of parodying Donald Rumsfeld, the unknown unknowns rather than the known knowns. They more than anything, more than even the genius of its principles and the courage of its founding, are the source of my continuing love of country despite its troubles and failings.
As a writer, who by virtue of the profession could not settle into any others, I’ve had a hundred jobs and met a thousand people who, like most, will leave little to no trace in history, and yet, on the scales of virtue, far outshine most of those who, for a time, are remembered.
A lifetime ago, I worked in a factory, and across from me was Johanna, pretty enough when young, modest and too self-effacing, with so much goodness radiating from her that although she had no halo I sometimes imagined that she did. I looked at her a lot, the way a boy can look at a girl. She knew it, and with a slight smile she kept her eyes on her work. I’ve never encountered anyone more lovely or deserving, but I left, and she remained.
After my windshield was shattered in a Princeton hailstorm, I was led to a shop in a less august town, where, with the coordination of surgeons, young men my age replaced the curving glass. Most of them had just returned from Vietnam and were floating on air, savoring every move in what they did, every note of the music coming over the radio, every breath of air at home at last. Their happiness as they worked was a better expression of America than any rhetoric or essay.
Go to the Oyster Bar in Grand Central, sit at the now unfortunately half-sized counter, and there you will see men of several countries and races working together in a ballet worthy of dancers. As soon as any one of them finishes something, he scans to find another and then goes to it as if attending a child or claiming a million-dollar prize, his satisfaction almost too palpable. Americans are most American when we work, because the bonds of affection and respect created among a free people at work are different than those among a people overly compelled by systems and masters.
I could go on about so many whom I have known: fighter pilots, farmers, cabinet makers, forest rangers, even accountants (the IRS has a very long list), or my friend, a tough cop, who, upon receiving an award for valiantly but unsuccessfully trying to save a baby’s life, broke down and wept on stage until he was taken into the arms of his very short female commanding officer. In the large and bustling audience, everything came to a dead stop, in dead silence, and we were all one.
These and the millions like them are the hope and sinew of America, the inheritors and guardians of its principles, good people present in all walks of life, and deeply worthy of our love.
This article appears as “Unknown Unknowns” in the September 9, 2019, print edition of National Review.