Clark Gable went to a Los Angeles Dodgers game one day and made fast friends with a fellow seated nearby. It turned out to be Charlie Gold, who was an agent. Gable enjoyed his company so much that he was thinking of hiring him to replace his current agent. “Tell me, Mr. Gold,” asked Gable. “Are you Jewish?” Charlie looked at him nervously, unsure of what this line of inquiry portended. Finally he answered: “Not necessarily.”
This matter of identity has been brought again to the fore by a startling news event. Up near the Michigan-Indiana border, two families have had their emotions wrenched by a weird case of mistaken identification. Marion, Indiana, was the site of a horrific crash on April 26. A car crash left five people dead and one in a coma. Two of the passengers had been blonde college girls of similar height and weight. One was killed, her face mangled; the other was the comatose survivor, her face swollen from her injuries.
The parents of Whitney Cerak were told to collect their daughter’s remains for burial, while Laura VanRyn’s family kept a prayerful vigil at her bedside. Now, over a month later, the patient is conscious and speaking. Her name, she says, is Whitney. And so a macabre game of musical chairs had to be played at her bedside. Laura’s parents and boyfriend shuffled off to exhume her body from a misnamed grave. Whitney’s folks took the seats at the side of her bed to tend for their child, first mourned, then revivified in their hearts.
Is there a moral to such a story, beyond the importance of storing DNA samples in a national clearinghouse? Or should it pass into the lore of urban misadventure as an isolated oddity?
It occurs to me that the lesson here is to shore up our own sense of individuality. We are enjoined to examine what it is that provides our definition of self. Are we American… or “not necessarily”? Are we Jewish or Christian… or “not necessarily”? Are we Democrat or Republican… or “not necessarily”? Are we Marines, machinists, Elks, midwives, Salvation Army volunteers or lifeguards? How about this: are we parents, siblings, children, teachers, students?
One thing is clear. We cannot afford to be a nation of amnesiacs. It is urgent that we recall who we are as a people. To remember why we fought for independence and union, why we went overseas and died for the freedom of others. We must always know which ideals have come to characterize us, which institutions have earned our loyalty. None of us can hope to travel very far if we do not carry our spiritual passports near our hearts.
The great Yiddish writer, Chaim Lieberman, wrote a book near the end of his life, circa 1960, about the loss of Jewish identity. In it he tells the story of a Jewish American soldier in World War Two who was shot and dying on the battlefield. He had heard that there was something that Jews said before they died, but he did not know the phrase. His Christian buddy knew it and led him through the recital of “Hear, O Israel, God is our Lord, God is One.” While Lieberman keyed on the tragedy of the soldier never having been educated, there is great beauty in the tableau of his fellow American helping him to reconnect to a historical home that he intuitively perceived.
Just as Jews are too ready to trade in their identities for the panache and lucre of being Clark Gable’s agent, American tourists are too quick to assure their hosts in Europe and elsewhere that they are actually Canadians. Nah. Enough of that. Time to wear our badges more proudly. Time to take pride in our national achievements, even if it means getting scowled at by a French intellectual or by an Italian beauty. Time to stand tall and walk tall.
There is no other way to end this meditation than with a joke, both funny and poignant. A man is out in his boat and a powerful typhoon is lashing the craft, threatening to hurl him at any moment into the sea. Desperately, he fiddles with the dials on the wireless, sending an S.O.S. to whoever might be within range. Suddenly, he breaks through to a Coast Guard rescue ship, although the signal is weak and fading. “Sir,” the voice implores. “Can you give me your position?”
“Certainly,” he replies with his last ounce of strength. “I’m Vice President for Purchasing at a large chain of retail outlets.”
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