This post is dedicated to SSG Montes, SSG Patterson and SSG Pernell of the United States Army Recruiting Center. Thank You Gentlemen for your service.
Standing at the grill, I carefully flipped a burger for Staff Sergeant Carlos Montes from the Harrisburg U.S. Army Recruiting Center and I thought about a fourth of July 40 years ago.
I was six years old for America’s Bicentennial in 1976. Being a kid from South Jersey’s blue-collared suburbs, I lived in the shadow of the birthplace of America. Just over the bridge, a short subway ride away, towered the dirty, racially tense City of Brotherly Love. To a fat south Jersey kid, Philadelphia was the house of the Broad Street Bullies, where the Flyers beat the Buffalo Sabres a year earlier to win the Stanley Cup. It was the home of America’s first zoo, Rocky, the Liberty Bell, cheese steaks and Independence Hall.
Philadelphia has always been a city of contrasts. In 1976 the City placed the “Love” sculpture in JFK Plaza. That same year the city had over 700 murders and the unemployment rate was 11.3 percent. Today, Philly has the worst poverty rate of the ten largest U.S Cities but has 11 billionaires who made the Forbes 400 Richest Americans list. For every “Rocky” story that Philadelphia gives birth, you’ll find ten stories of violence, poverty, drug addiction and despair. For every Saint Katherine Drexel or Saint John Newman the city creates, there are ten thousand pimps, drug dealers,freaks, felons, mobsters, thieves and miscreants that call Philadelphia home . For every Margaret Meade or Issac Asimov created by Philadelphia, a thousand desperate souls never realize their full potential or find their brilliance and live their dream. Philadelphia you see, is not like America, Philadelphia is America. It’s the same scenario from sea to shining sea.
The food truck was hot as I carefully ladled and extra-large scoop of bacon jam on the roll. I desperately wanted SSG Montes to enjoy his meal. It was the most important event of Dave’s and my day. More important than making money. More important than gaining fans. More important than anything. I thought back to 1976.
I remember watching the ships in the harbour on TV. I remember parades and sparklers and block parties with tipsy Uncle Sams and Ben Franklin. I can still smell charcoal, hot dogs and beer.
As a kid, I was unaware of the heavy, social, moral and political implications of the big city. Through my eyes, I understood the historical significance of Philly but in my fragile mind, the urban experience was a kaleidoscope of fun times at zoos, sporting events, museums, fireworks, parades and parks. To me, it really was the City of Brotherly Love.
A whiff of charred burger jarred me back to 2016.
I make no apologies for Philadelphia or America for that matter. The wise old guys in triangle hats gave us a shot. America doesn’t owe you anything. Philadelphia doesn’t owe you anything. Let me make something clear:The Declaration of Independence is really specific about what God gives us. Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of happiness. These unalienable Rights are transformational. It gives the drug addict the chance to someday become the Doctor. The thief could choose to be a lawyer. The sinner can create a path to sainthood. The poor have a chance at prosperity. There are no guarantees of happiness. I think the greatest gift our country gives us is not only the opportunity to succeed, but also to fail . It’s entirely up to you.
My wife Michelle handed SSG Carlos Montes the perfect Guerrilla Burger and he shared his story.
” My mom brought me to America from Honduras when I was 14. To me, I associated America with great things in my childhood. In Honduras the American missionaries brought books and clothes. I had fun at Sunday school.”
He continued,” When we first came to America we lived in Florida and I was really confused because everyone spoke Spanish. I taught myself english by studying and watching television.”
” Years later, I had a good job at a law firm and September 11 happened and I couldn’t resist joining the Army. People told me that I was nuts to leave my good job to serve in the military. I felt like it was something that I had to do.”
” I’m proud to be a part of the 1% of Americans who serve in the United States Military. Ironically, my son goes to boot camp on September 11th of this year.”
I shot a look at Dave and our eyes spoke to one another, ” That’s what it’s all about.”
When you’re celebrating America’s Birthday have fun. Hug your kids. Kiss your spouse beneath the rockets red glare. Enjoy yourself. Pursue your Happiness.
After the charcoal in your grill smolders to a white ash and the orange glow of sparklers lose their luster and turn sooty black, tuck your kids in bed knowing that Staff Sergeant Carlos Montes and his son are willing to sacrifice their lives to defend yours. And if you could, in the stillness in your heart, ask your creator to keep all of our military safe. It’s the very least we can do.