My father would sometimes tell the story of the day he became a citizen of the United States of America.
He had one suit, a blue one, and on the day he became a citizen, he wore that suit to federal court in downtown Chicago. All men wore suits to court in the early ’60s, not just lawyers or politicians.
But he wasn’t an attorney or a politician. He was an immigrant waiter at the Hilton Hotel, with a wife and three young boys, trying to start a grocery business with his brother.
And in court, the judge asked my father this question: If you become a U.S. citizen, would you bear arms against your former nation?
I’ve witnessed other citizenship ceremonies, the families proud and happy, immigrants with their flags, and I haven’t heard that question asked of others.
So it could have been an isolated one, the whim of that particular judge. My father’s English wasn’t the best then, but he clearly understood.
Would he fight against the country he’d bled for to protect? Would he kill those of his fatherland, if America asked it of him?
He’d spent 10 years in war, carrying a rifle in the Greek army in World War II, fighting Mussolini, then the Germans and through the occupation. After the Germans left, there was a bloody civil war with the communists. Terrible sins were committed on all sides.
So that question from the judge wasn’t some dry academic exercise. And his answer was wet with blood and pain and quite fresh in his mind.
Friends dead in the snows of Albania and the hunger up there, and later came the German tanks and the German boots and the executions in villages. After that there was blood everywhere, in that horrible ferocity that consumes a nation during civil war.
Of course, he didn’t tell it to us that way. He didn’t tell the judge about it. All he’d say was, “I was thinking of everything that happened.”
We had to piece things together ourselves over time, from scraps of stories we’d learned, because he didn’t like to talk about the war.
“And the judge asked me this, and I looked at him and I said ‘Yes your honor.’ I will fight.
“Because I wanted to be an American,” he said. “Because I wanted you to be an American, so no other country could come in here and step on your belly.”
There was a brief catch in his voice once, when he first told me.
My brothers and I would try to imagine that other place in my father’s mind, where an invading army could plant their boots on our bellies. We couldn’t. We had no frame of reference. We were born Americans.
And becoming American became a religion for us then. The Pledge of Allegiance that we said in school wasn’t just words. “The Star-Spangled Banner” wasn’t just an old song we had to sing.
These were the secular rites of melting-pot America, binding us together, all of us, the native born, the immigrant, and the children of new citizens, with one foot in the new country, one foot in the old.
We know patriotism is often used by cynical masters of war to goad the people into battle.
But doesn’t a nation of immigrants from every land need something to bind it, to reinforce our obligations to our country and to each other as citizens?
So what is that common thread? I held it once, but I don’t see it now.
Instead we break in pieces; economically, politically, ethnically. We’re angry, we bicker and we go our separate ways.
John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.