Land of the free, home of the lame

We love to wave the flag and leave the mess for someone else

Illustration By Ginger Fierstein

Alison Rood is openly living as a lefty in El Dorado Hills. Her subjects are as strange to her as she is to them.

Aerobatic pilot Julie Clark soared through the sunny skies over Mather Airport during the California Capital Airshow (March 18-19), executing flawless barrel rolls and blowing patriotic smoke while Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” blared from loudspeakers stationed near the tarmac.

Greenwood, as most of us know by now, is proud to be an American, where at least he knows he’s free. He might have added, “Free to trash the planet,” if he’d witnessed the amount of litter the spectators left behind when the air show was over.

After the Blue Angels had landed and departed from the field, my family and I packed up our chairs and backpacks and looked at the unbelievable sea of garbage around us. Plates still heaped with uneaten chicken teriyaki, plastic utensils, empty drink cups, cellophane wrappers and napkins. It had all been left for somebody else to clean up. A disembodied voice from the speaker in front of me spoke as though he could see the garbage strewn everywhere and asked that we pick up any trash we found. “Yeah, right,” I told my husband and kids. “Us and which army?”

Part of Greenwood’s lyrics include the line, “From Detroit down to Houston and New York to L.A., there’s pride in every American heart.” Can an American feel pride in his heart and disrespect for the environment at the same time? Can a patriot also be an unconscionable litterbug?

The talking head on the loudspeaker preached quite a bit about pride and freedom as the day wore on. He said Nikolay Timofeev, flying his aerobatic plane above us to the music from Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake,” was happy to be free in America, and I have no doubt Timofeev is happy, although he wasn’t available for comment. But as I sat in my camp chair eating a sandwich and sipping a beer, I watched the people around me wolfing food and beverages and mentally compared us to families in Baghdad. We were all relaxing in the sun without fear of a suicide bomber stumbling into our midst. We weren’t living in a country ravaged by a war started by outsiders. We weren’t stockpiling weapons, dry goods and water as we faced the possibility of a war among ourselves.

According to former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a civil war in Iraq is already under way. In a recent interview with the British Broadcasting Corp., Allawi estimated that an average of 50 to 60 Iraqi people a day are being killed. About 1,000 Iraqis have died since the bombing of a Shiite Muslim shrine in February. Some critics, including Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, believe our time in Iraq ultimately will end in a tradeoff: utter chaos in place of Saddam Hussein.

While a Coast Guard plane simulated the rescue of a person stranded in deep water, I watched a man swig a drink, throw his plastic cup down, grind it into the turf with his heel and walk away with a cell phone pressed to his ear. He was safely in Sacramento, free to eat and litter as much as he liked. There were no stockpiling chores on his agenda, and the only threat to his day was a chance of road rage later when he tried to navigate his car onto a jammed freeway.

Maybe the talking head should have exchanged his endless clichés about pride and freedom for a discussion on common decency.

As an opponent of the war in Iraq, my presence at an air show wasn’t exactly logical anyway, given the variety of war aircraft on display. But the reason I was there is simple. The speed of supersonic jets like the T-38 thrills me. The precise maneuvering of the Navy’s flight demonstration team, the Blue Angels, thrills me. Even the aerobatic pilots in propeller planes who climb toward the sun and barrel-roll back to earth thrill me. I don’t equate the jets that give me goose bumps with war—or at least I didn’t until I heard the sound of one a day before the air show and shivered with delight. My companion glanced at me in dismay.

“How can you enjoy that sound?” she asked. “It reminds me of bad things, like bombs.” I didn’t tell her that the Blue Angels don’t drop bombs, but since the purpose of their type of jet would be air-to-air combat in a war situation, the point was probably moot.

It wasn’t pride in our ability to wage war or a serious contemplation of freedom that brought me to the air show; it was flat out lust for the sight and sound of those blue and gold Navy jets. It was intense admiration for pilots who can fly in a six-jet Delta formation, 18 inches apart, and not crash and die. It was the exhilaration of watching human minds accomplish astounding, nonviolent feats.

But once I was there, pride and freedom, the buzzwords of the day, became an issue I had to address in my own mind. The trash that thousands of people left on the ground at Mather Airport is one way of measuring a nation’s pride, and based on the garbage factor I observed, I’d guess some people regard freedom as casually as the litter that blew around their feet. It seems we’re entitled to make a mess on our own soil, too, if we feel like it. Minus the grief and bloodshed, of course.

An elderly man and his family were seated in front of me during the show, and I noticed his quiet attention throughout the day. He stood up and mouthed the words to the Star Spangled Banner. Instead of falling asleep on the ground with a fleshy, tattooed stomach exposed, as some did, he was mindful of the planes performing in the sky above him. He had a cache of juice in plastic containers, and he took the time to pack up his empties when the show was over. He didn’t leave anything behind except the good memory he gave a stranger.