Patriotism In The Heartland: Columbia MO Rallies To Shield A Fallen Soldier’s Family From Anti-Gay Zealots

Samuel Johnson once said that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel and ordinarily, I agree with him – but not today. I was driving through downtown Columbia, Missouri, and witnessed a remarkable demonstration of community solidarity and patriotism that caused me to pull over off of the town’s main street.

There were thousands of ordinary people dressed in red, many of them holding large American flags, forming a human wall of solidarity around a church where Sterling Wyatt, an American soldier killed by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan was about to be laid to rest.

The huge crowd was galvanized to action by a tiny group of anti-gay zealots from the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, who believe that our soldiers are fighting and dying in Afghanistan to promote gay rights at home. When word got out in Columbia and the surrounding region that the Westboro nuts, who run an appalling anti-gay website, planned to protest at Wyatt’s funeral, scores of people organized on Facebook and other sites to protect Wyatt’s family from having to encounter the protesters.According to the Columbia Daily Tribune, Wyatt was a music lover who held a black belt in taekwondo and had just received a promotion four days before his death. The fact that he died so young is a monumental tragedy and everyone in the town seemed to recognize that he deserved a dignified burial. But no one could have predicted that he and his family would receive the warm embrace that they did.

I didn’t actually see the small group of protesters, but we saw the thousands who turned out in red to support the Wyatt family and the spectacle moved my wife to tears. Seeing all the flags and the red-clad people choked me up as well and I couldn’t help but conclude that the incident underscored what I love about America’s heartland.

In the small and medium-sized towns, in what some derisively call fly-over country, values, community and patriotism are still paramount. The fact that thousands of people would turn out on a day when the temperatures were in the mid 90s, to express support not for the war, but for one local family suffering the loss of their 21-year-old son is remarkable.

I talked to a married couple outside the church that were decked out in St. Louis Cardinals attire and they said they were so appalled by the idea of anyone protesting at a funeral that they decided to turn out to show solidarity with the Wyatt family.

“We want them to know they’re not welcome here,” the man said, referring to the Westboro protesters. “Columbia is kind of a big, small town, and we support each other here.”

According to the Columbia Daily Tribune, the Wyatt family came out of the church at one point to greet and hug the red-clad supporters. I didn’t see that moment, nor did I see any of the Westboro protesters, who apparently only stuck around for about 45 minutes, but what I did see made me proud to be an American.

Sometimes it’s easy to conclude that the whole country is lost, hopelessly adrift – especially after the tragedy in Colorado. But on this day I saw a community rally around a family in the name of decency and honor. If that’s not what America’s all about, then I don’t know what is.

Fake Canadians go home

I’m as mad as a polar bear reading about global warming. Everywhere I look I see Canadian flags on backpacks. A maple leaf seems to be as important an item of budget travel gear as daddy’s credit card, but there’s one problem–many of the people flashing the good old red, white, and red aren’t Canadian.

I am.

I’ve taken to asking people their nationality when I see them sporting a Canadian flag and only about half turn out to be Canadian. The other half are American. No Brits, no Aussies, no Latvians. It seems the fake Canadians all come from south of the border.

Are they illegal immigrants coming to steal our heath care and eat all our maple syrup? No, they’re pretending to be Canadians because their guidebooks have told them they’ll be safer in all those scary foreign countries. Americans are targets, the guidebooks warn, so it’s best to lay low. Lonely Planet started this ridiculous trend, but I’ve spotted the advice in other guidebooks too. It’s stupid, and here’s why.

First off, it’s hypocritical. I’ve seen these sunshine patriots screech with rage when anyone says anything the least bit negative about the U.S., but they’ll gladly give up their identity on the advice of some random guidebook writer. If you’re proud to be American, that’s great, the U.S. has a lot going for it, but then show you’re proud by wearing an AMERICAN flag.
Secondly, the idea that a Canadian flag will protect you overseas is simply untrue. Thieves see you as a rich Westerner, and don’t care whether you come from Manitoba or Montana. Terrorists see you as an evil Westerner, and don’t care either. Some of the biggest attacks against travelers have been against British and Germans, not Americans. Besides, while the Canadian flag is a glorious national emblem, sublime in its simplicity and beauty, it is not bomb proof. Suicide attacks don’t discriminate and usually take out more locals than foreigners.

Thirdly, Americans aren’t as hated as they think. Oh, there are the jokes about fat, ignorant Americans that unite the world from Egypt to Ecuador, but few people really mean Americans any harm. I know, because I am regularly mistaken for one. When I worked and traveled for a couple of years in the Middle East, nobody threatened me. I even witnessed the 14th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Isfahan, Iran, and didn’t have a problem. In fact, the entire month I was in Iran people constantly assumed I was American (or British, equally bad according to government propaganda) but I was never threatened. Instead I was treated to embarrassing levels of hospitality and the only danger was the very real possibility of being fed to death on massive dinners and cloyingly sweet desserts. The Iranians, it seems, can distinguish between people and governments. Oh, I occasionally had to endure odious lectures on the evils of Israel or how Zionists run Washington (snore) but I was never treated to even so much as a harsh word. It was the same in Palestine, Egypt, Morocco, Syria, and Turkey.

So Americans, please, show some love for your country and wear your own flag. The world doesn’t hate you as much as you think it does. But I wouldn’t suggest wearing a t-shirt saying “Employee of the U.S. Government”. That’s what most people are really ticked off about.

And if you are truly that embarrassed by your own country, I suggest one of two things–either stay home and work on fixing it, or move to Canada. We’re underpopulated, so there’s plenty of room.

Birthplace of Memorial Day offers festival and small town charm

Back in 1865, Henry C. Wells, a druggist in Waterloo, New York thought that honoring all American soldiers who died in a war was a fitting gesture. The following year, Waterloo threw the first Memorial Day celebration on May 5. The holiday caught on, and in 1966 Lyndon Johnson signed a Presidential Proclamation declaring Waterloo the “Birthplace of Memorial Day,” something the town takes quite seriously.

Instead of focusing only on Monday, the town includes the entire weekend for festivities. Located in between Cayuga and Seneca Lakes in the Finger Lakes region of New York, this would be a place to head to for a mix of the outdoors and history. Unlike Ithaca that wants you to stay away for Memorial Day festivities because of Cornell’s graduation that adds plenty of people to Ithaca’s streets, Waterloo wants you.

As a person who is a festival hound, Waterloo looks like the perfect way to kick-off the summer season of festival hopping. All the trimmings are there and most activities are free, or budget friendly. Events start this weekend and finish up on May 30, the official date of Memorial Day.

Activities are family friendly and include a breakfast buffet, 5-K run, car show, bike rally, a concert stage with multiple concerts and acts, an arts and crafts show, plus a Memorial Day Commemoration by Waterloo veterans. Of course there’s the parade that anyone can join in and fireworks. For the schedule, click here.

There are also special events for the younger crowd. At the Kids’ Korner there are games, crafts, goodie bags, animals, a clown and a juggler, depending upon the time you’re there.

One item in particular caught my eye. Bubblemania, a one-person performance by Casey Carle will be on the Layfette Stage. According to the info on the festival Website, Carle has been performing in India on a 16-day tour. I’m always curious to find out how performers from various countries end up performing where they do, whether they are from the U.S. and end up overseas or groups from other countries that end up here, particularly on a small town stage. If you see him, ask him.

If you head to Waterloo, also check out the National Memorial Day Museum, and the American Civil War Memorial and take a ride on the Finger Lakes Scenic Railway.