Outtakes and Vagabonds: What does it mean to be an American?

It’s a national argument that seems to erupt in periodic waves. One year nobody’s thinking about it, the next year, bam.

Flag-waving, flag-burning. The non-historic pledge of allegiance…or not. Birth certificates. Standing with (or without) hand over heart for the mediocre national anthem at football games.

By what standards, through what lessons do we define ourselves as Americans?

I once had an experience which provided a simple answer of stunning and simple clarity to that debate.

In the early 1970’s, a zig in my film-biz career plunked me in England for one summer, working on a small British film set entirely in the English Midlands. A lot of crazy, hilarious and troubling things happened that summer. Do I correctly recall a free lance composer climbing through my window in the hotel where most of us were staying? Like that.

The town was so insignificant, if you sent me a letter, you’d have to write the name of the town and after that “Nr. Rugby,” i.e., near Rugby, or the post office probably wouldn’t find it. We were “nr” a few places, like Coventry and Birmingham but were never a stand-alone town.

Once, for some reason, I visited the cemetery and ran into the town’s priest, who swept his arm over the gravestones and said, “You’ll notice there are only a few last names here. Intermarriage. They’re all idiots.”

There was nothing much to do there other than going to the Wheatsheaf, the local pub, after work, drinking shandies and playing skittles or darts, at which I got good enough to win a tournament.

I was The American, whose alien ways were to be wondered at and fondly mocked. At some point early on I noticed that the production’s males went to the pub, but my women pals didn’t. I asked my friend Mary about this. She thought about it for a few seconds and said, with awakening chagrin, “I guess it’s because the traditional role of Englishmen is to go out to work, stop at the pub on the way home but the women, even if they work, go home to prepare dinner and wait for the men.”

I pointed out that on a film location the women weren’t going home to cook for the men. We were all going out to eat. Besides, the chauvinism was a tad regressive, at least in my rambunctious home country. After that, Mary and other women came to the pub after work. I was quietly proud of my revolution, even if it was as contained as the town.

I had a job title but no work attached to it. I found this irritating. So, to keep myself busy, I made friends. I’d walk around town and drop in at the various offices the film had rented for the duration. (One of those offices was in an old windmill; another, the editing room, was in a trailer.)

In another old building was our chief accountant, Peter Lancaster. I liked Peter a lot so one of my established residences was sitting on Peter’s floor as he worked.

One day, offhandedly I asked Peter, “Where do you come from?”

“Lancashire,” he said.

“Oh, right,” I said delightedly. “Lancaster, Lancashire.” Then I followed up with the question we Americans all ask each other at the beginning of friendships. “But where did your family come from before Lancashire?”

Peter looked bewildered. Then he said, “Well, Lancashire. We’ve always come from Lancashire.”

That one casual exchange conveyed the essence of American history: except for original peoples, we all came from somewhere else. We all came from somewhere else.

This was, for me, an epiphany.

I think we’re the only country on our planet where we each have an answer to that question. The question and its answers resonate throughout our history, our contemporary lives, our politics, our beliefs. The answer is why our international relationships are riddled with misunderstandings and why Americans who don’t want to absorb it resort to violence against The Others — although we are all The Others.

The question and its answers are the core of our existence.

All of us came from somewhere else.

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