Saturday, May 15, was the 30th anniversary of the day I stepped off a Pan-American aeroplane at Seattle Airport and became an American resident.
Aged 23, I waved goodbye to my native England and embraced this land of wonderment, opportunity and freedom.
After 30 years here, I love the United States of America.
It was 1980. I had just written about Britain's first race riot. My inherently racist home was about to catch up with the necessary strife that the U.S. endured in the 1960s. In my new homeland, Jimmy Carter was a lame duck in the White House; American hostages were held captive in Iran; the U.S. was boycotting the summer Olympics in Moscow, in protest at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Fast-forward to 2010. I am bald. Pan-Am exists only in history books; that tangled abomination of concrete chaos has been renamed Sea-Tac International; and no one uses the word aeroplane anymore. The hostages were released, after 444 days and a brave rescue attempt, but we're still not happy with Iran. Afghanistan has armed foreigners wandering its streets, but now they're good guys like Astoria's Dean Perez.
The Carter presidency was far from stellar. Since leaving office, he's proved to be one magnificent human being. His latest success is helping win Africa's long-standing fight to eradicate Guinea worm disease. No ex-president in my lifetime has proved so hardworking. Whatever your cynicism level about beliefs, the way Carter translates faith into practical action is commendable.
When I stepped off that airplane, it was into the arms of a cuddly 23-year-old Northwest beauty. I married her six weeks later; at the end of next month, we'll celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. Love remains wondrous.
As for those 30 years, it's been a stream of eye-popping experiences. I've spilled ink at six newspapers in five states and stammered through a bunch of radio shows. I've appeared in 10 plays, mostly comedies, singing once. I've refereed 1,000 soccer games, in torrential rain or baking sunshine. I've earned a couple of college degrees. I've even joined the Masons - my desperate grab toward respectability.
And I have changed, maybe mellowed and definitely adapted, as I have switched jobs and time zones, dug out from a flooded home, coped with a relative's dementia, and paid enough dues, one way or another, to become eligible for Social Security (if it still exists) in a decade or so.
Along the journey, I have discovered my own American truths, which may not be self evident.
The America I have grown to love is a nation of believers. We don't need snake-oil salesmen from the human potential movement telling us how to feel. We don't need Rorschach tests or pep talks. We have the greatest potential for doing good in the world. And the time is now, if only we realize it. The theme of Pete Townshend's "Tommy," the most significant piece of literature in the 20th century, should be our watchword. We don't need false gods, drugs or booze to be free. We only need to be ourselves.
But we must put our house in order. Here on the North Coast, it certainly means being more civil. We've gotten worse, not better, in my dozen years here. Few seek common ground - "you're either with us or against us." I have lived in six communities in the United States. The North Coast is the most beautiful, most relaxed and most friendly. But also the most puzzling; why do some people want to make us into New Jersey? When I first heard stories about how the health of salmon reflects our health in the Northwest, I rejected them as New Age mumbo-jumbo. I was wrong. It should become our dogma. Read the salmon chapter in Timothy Egan's "The Good Rain" and you'll understand.
In 30 years I have shifted 180 degrees on states' rights. To a recent immigrant, it seemed absurd that thirsty Washington State University students could drive across the Idaho border to avoid committing a crime. (That discrepancy has since gone away; Idaho's drinking age has been raised from 19 to 21.) I had missed the point; this is a nation that unites separate-thinking states. Now, with the exception of the death penalty, I delight in these differences. Oregon allows euthanasia and medical marijuana; I'm supportive of one and against the other, but I celebrate Oregonians' right to set their own rules.
In the White House, Carter was replaced by Reagan, then Bush Sr., Clinton, Bush Jr. and now Obama. I'll save my thoughts on those fellas for another day, though suffice to say - and this is both obvious and inevitable - that none hit a home run every time at bat.
And so to guns. John Lennon was shot dead on a New York street in the December after I emigrated, so you can imagine how I felt then about Americans' easy access to lethal weapons. Silly me, I thought that the Second Amendment - "A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed" - meant exactly what it says.
Would it be better if every American was issued a gun on their 21st birthday? Maybe Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson should invent a pistol, like those phasers on Star Trek, with two settings. One for deadly force, to be used sparingly, but handy for teachers to end campus shootings; and the other for "stun." This latter setting should be used when anyone around you is either a.) about to do something stupid; or b.) doing something stupid. Imagine the possibilities, and not just at Port of Astoria Commission meetings.
The single biggest joy about America, however, is not the Second Amendment to the Constitution but the First. Its words, its simplicity, and all its implications, give me goose bumps. Speech here is free. The U.S. government guarantees it.
During three decades, I believe I have earned the right to criticize the America I love. The same great country that sends men to the moon awards damages to a McDonald's customer because they spilled hot coffee. When are people ever going to take responsibility for their own actions?
So if reading this made you mad, fine. Do something about it. Speak out! Write a letter to the editor. Make your part of America a better place. Volunteer. Start a business. Join a club. Clean up the beach.
I used to bristle with annoyance when my family in England said, "You Yanks ..." and included me. Now I wear it as a badge of honor; that's my country you're attacking.
I'm one of you, in spirit if not in voice. I believe I have embraced this noble experiment. I've done my job, helped lead organizations, played fair, and sometimes played the fool in greasepaint and borrowed clothes. I've been a good neighbor and tried not to hurt anyone. OK, I'm not proud I used the "F" word to resolve a medical billing dispute, but sometimes you've just gotta get people's attention.
I love America. It is home; it sure beats everywhere else. America fails regularly, but that's because it tries harder than anywhere else. It falls and then it picks itself up. My America is a land of astonishing highs and lows.
I am privileged to live here. And I thrive.
Thank you, America.
English-born Patrick Webb is managing editor of The Daily Astorian, sister paper to the Chinook Observer. He and his wife Debbie live in Long Beach. She is a teacher at Ilwaco Middle School/High School.