Going west

Long ago a person dear to me disappeared for what would become eight years. When this happened I was given comfort and perspective by his maternal grandfather, a professor of history whose study concentrated on the American South after the Civil War.

“You know what the most common record of young men was, after the Civil War?” he asked.

“You mean census records?”

“Yes, and church records, family histories, all that.”

“I don’t know.”

“Two words: Went west.”

He went on to explain that that, except for the natives here in the U.S., nearly all of our ancestors had gone west. Literally or metaphorically, voluntarily or not, they went west.

More importantly, most were not going back. Many, perhaps most, were hardly heard from again in the places they left. The break from the past in countless places was sadly complete for those left behind. All that remained were those two words.

Went west.

This fact, he said, is at the heart of American rootlessness.

“We are the least rooted civilization on Earth,” he said. “This is why we have weaker family values than any other country.”

This is also why he also thought political talk about “family values” was especially ironic. We may have those values, but they tend not to keep us from going west anyway.

This comes to mind because I am haunted by Harry Chapin‘s song, “Cat’s in the Cradle.” It’s hard not to be moved by it.

  1. webengrave’s avatar

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  2. federick’s avatar

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