An Unexpected Fourth of July Reflection

Tony SigI was born in Milwaukee. But I only lived there ’till I was five, so my memories of it are vague and fleeting. When we moved, it was for my father to take up a senior pastor’s position in a small Wisconsin town, Boscobel. Which is, if I recall, the wild turkey hunting capital of the world. At the time, it was in many ways, an iconic small American town. We had an A&W, a Dairy Queen, a movie theatre with a single screen; it bordered the Wisconsin river, and a small creek ran through town and flooded every Spring. In it, I used to catch crayfish. One time a friend and I caught one about the size of a small lobster and were able to sell it to the local pet store. We had a single public elementary school and there wasn’t much of a public middle school, we just moved to the public high school building when we hit the 7th grade.

Some of my earliest memories are from the elementary school. In second grade, Mrs. Waters taught me math and in music class I learned the fifty states song, which I still know by heart. I was in children’s plays on a stage that was part of the gymnasium; they didn’t have a separate auditorium so all large events happened in the gym. In the fifth grade, I started band. I desperately wanted to be a percussionist but Mr. Barrens said I didn’t have any rhythm, so he recommended I take up the trumpet. Three years later I was his first chair trumpeter…and the drummer for his jazz band – the other percussionists were only good enough to bang on a bass drum at pep rallies.

I didn’t pursue sports for very long, so most of my memories from school revolve around band. In 7th and 8th grade, I would stay after school for at least an hour every day and bang away on the drum kit in the practice room. No doubt I sounded terrible and drove Mr. Barrens crazy, himself being quite an accomplished drummer. Some years later, after moving to Minnesota, Mr. Miller had to put up with me learning guitar. Lord knows I’m still terrible at that instrument. When state competitions came around, Mr. Barrens would give me special lessons so that I could play the highest level pieces. Mr. Miller even let me compete on the snare drum (I was his jazz drummer too). I’ve got more than a handful gold, silver and bronze medals from years of State competition. Music still plays an important part in my life, and I owe it to the public school system, to Mr. Barrens and Mr. Miller as well as to my choir director, Mrs. Halverson

During the summer, I would spend at least five days a week at the public swimming pool – my family had unlimited summer passes. I would hop on my bike and ride down the public roads, over public bridges (I told you that creek ran right through town) and spend countless hours there. It had a high dive, a low dive, and very few rules. By the end of my time in Boscobel I could do a pretty rad ganor and even a double front flip. It was the same public pool where I first learned to swim.

Just down the road was a huge public park with tennis courts, playgrounds, a hill that in winter was the town sledding hill and from which we launched fireworks every fourth of July, a grove of pine trees and freshly built public softball diamonds. It bumped right up against the public school running track, football field and baseball diamond. I played tee-ball on that diamond and little league at the new softball diamonds. When I wasn’t swimming, I was often at those diamonds. You see we had a very competitive public softball league and even though I was too young to play, my dad, a pentecostal pastor and volunteer fire fighter, played alongside all the town’s men – despite the fact that all that beer made us uncomfortable. So I would buy sodas and watch, or take my BMX with my buddy and jump the piles of dirt left from the construction. Town parades often ended here and sometimes we had big tractor pulls. But mostly I remember the softball and the bike jumping.

We never had much money. If it wasn’t for the frequent generosity of my grandfather, things could’ve been fairly rough. To help make ends meet, my mom ran a day care out of our parsonage. This was made easier because of the public WIC program that provides food and/or vouchers for those in need. You might say that, in an indirect way, the government helped to serve Boscobel Assemblies of God, since that faithful and lovely church couldn’t afford to pay my parents much.

In the winter, I still played with public water, but of the frozen variety. Just a couple blocks down from the house, across from the mysterious Catholic parish (we heard they had beer at their gatherings) was a public ice rink with a quaint little warming house where I would come in for a little respite from Wisconsin winters and frozen toes to buy a pack of Swiss Miss hot chocolate. The town kids and I left one half of the rink open for “free skaters” but as for us, we set up two oil barrels and played hockey. Sometimes a truck would come out to plow but when we were impatient, the kids and I would just bust out some shovels and clear the ice for ourselves. Those piles of snow sure did get hard. Some of the kids who had parents with a little money had helmets and pads, but most of us just needed a stick and some hockey skates. Once, a kid who often bullied me challenged me to a 1 on 1 game in which I resoundingly whomped him. Often, I would come home from school and skate until dinner time.

This pattern remained much the same when once we moved to Monticello, MN. Though the town was still larger than Boscobel, it still had the same small town feel. (Though many places I once knew as fields are now filled with big box stores) I still played in the school band and was in two musicals, Bye Bye Birdie and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I even gave sports another shot, joining the Cross Country team my junior year to spend more time with my close friend.

There was something of a shift, though, because the larger youth group, plus our newfound independence on account of our driver’s licenses meant that school had less the social role it once had, nevertheless I’ve always been a public school boy.

I hope by now a pattern is emerging. Time fails me to mention all the times, simply of those which I am able to remember, that public spaces and services have been there for me. My family has taken vacations to national parks; my wife and I too had WIC for a while and even now are a part of the state health care service for poor folk; I am in my senior year at the University of Minnesota – schooling which I will put to use in the Church; come Winter I’ll be taking public transportation to school; and I take my girls down to the public parks several times a week. In looking back, I find myself exceedingly grateful for all that the public has given me and enabled me to do.

The thing is, it has only been in the last few years that I’ve ever gotten into politics. Though now it seems odd, my dad was never very political, he certainly didn’t think any party was closest to God’s will for “this Christian nation.” And indeed, for the life of me, I couldn’t tell you anything about the politics of the towns I was raised in. Whatever anyone’s political inclinations, it was apparently taken simply for granted that a healthy town needed healthy public services. I shudder to think what my life would be like had there been multiple “private” swimming pools or parks charging admission like a golf course or something. Do you ever see poor people at a golf course? As much as I hear about it “not being government’s job” to provide health care, there aren’t any Churches prepared to provide insurance for my family. Instead, the egalitarian nature of public space meant that I swam and learned with kids who had lots more than our family. Yet, I never got the impression that anyone perceived my family as lazy or selfish, or my teachers as greedy and ungrateful, or that these were indulgent luxuries.

But the landscape seems to have changed. Now even the idea of public schooling is viewed either as some utilitarian good meant to be used in the service of private capital (which somehow will be for the greater social good) or a “bulky and inefficient luxury” that should probably be done away with in favor of “competitive” private schools. Do you ever see poor people at private schools? Or, at least at ones that don’t have huge funds available to meet minority quotas?

I mention schools so often because at my age it’s been one of the most significant and long lasting public institutions that I’ve been a part of. But as I’ve already made clear, the influence is much, much wider. I owe the very kind of existence I have to “big government.” In fact, I’d venture to say that taxes aren’t even something the public should be lucky to have out of me, as if it was ever mine in the first place. It’s more appropriate, I think, to consider taxes as something I never owned, because I’m not a self-made man.

So whatever else is true about the tragic and unfortunate affects of nationalism in the Church, and whatever can rightly be leveled against America and her war mongering expansionism for global capital, the threat of a dissolution of a public space, a recognized place where people of disparate ideologies and income brackets can work together toward a common, public good because of an honest assessment of our interdependence, frightens me as well.  I may not be a patriot, and I won’t be singing any patriotic songs today, but I just might raise a glass to the Boscobel Public Swimming Pool.

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7 Comments

  1. The good old days, when corporations and the ownership class actually invested in the communities that supported their success, when companies knew that healthy families and neighborhoods were the most important dividends, when CEOs weren’t trying to outdo each other on coming-of-age parties for their kids because they didn’t know what to do with the massive wealth gap in their favor.

    I’m so impure ideologically. I have a very intense distrust for liberal democracy, thinking that what we have isn’t a system failure but and inherent in the programming. And yet I too lament the loss of public good and democracy that works for the people instead of the powerful.

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  2. I lament the jingoistic patriotism common in the American Church, but I’m also bothered by the (admittedly much rarer) anti-statism people often turn to in response. I think you’ve captured the jist of my own thoughts in your post.

    I was sent to private evangelical Christian schools. Looking back, I can’t see that they gave me any advantage. If anything, they offered fewer options. None of them had any musical programs that I can remember, and the closest I ever got was choir in my last couple years of high school (that was no real education though, we just learned parts by rote.)

    But after high school I went to community college. California has the biggest such system in the world, and, as far as I know, the cheapest in the nation (it was originally free, but plunging revenues in the wake of Prop 13 ended that, and the cost has been rising rapidly of late.) After I finally (finally!) finish my AA I’ll get a BA at a CSU. It could certainly be closer to the originally intended (free) vision, but I’m not sure what I would do without our system of higher education.

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  3. Brilliant post =).

    “I owe the very kind of existence I have to “big government.” In fact, I’d venture to say that taxes aren’t even something the public should be lucky to have out of me, as if it was ever mine in the first place. It’s more appropriate, I think, to consider taxes as something I never owned, because I’m not a self-made man.”

    That’s precisely the sensibility we need to cultivate. It’s a social conscientiousness—an acknowledgement of the socially-constructed nature of our selves, and thus contributing back is simply a given.

    Recently in Grand Rapids, a vote was taken whether to increase property taxes a wee bit to help fund the public bus transit system. It would’ve been perhaps $25 per household, but it would’ve given many millions in funding to the public transit system (much of which is used, of course, by the poor). It barely passed, by something like only one hundred votes.

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  4. Joey: “I have a very intense distrust for liberal democracy, thinking that what we have isn’t a system failure but and inherent in the programming. And yet I too lament the loss of public good and democracy that works for the people instead of the powerful.”

    Can we parse this as the difference between liberal democracy and social democracy? (And perhaps liberal capitalism vs. social capitalism?)

    (Maybe that question should be asked on #epicthread)

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