The Nice America

Sure: that beautiful American word

—Delmore Schwartz

I had thought about leaving America for a few weeks-maybe hiding out in Belize until the nastiness surrounding the election dies down. What stopped me was reading and re-reading Roger Cohen’s recent column in the Times:

“Delmore Schwartz, the poet, wrote of “the beautiful American word, Sure.”

To anyone raised as I was in the crimped confines of a wearier continent, that little word is indeed a thing of beauty, expressing a sense of possibility, an embrace of tomorrow, openness to the stranger, and a readiness for adventure that no other country possesses in such degree. It is the most concise expression of the optimism inherent in the idea.”

It’s nice to be reminded that this country has a good heart. I grew up in foreign countries-five of them-and it was made clear to me that the generosity of spirit embodied in the way we make a phrase out of this word is distinctively American:

“Will you do this for me?”


It is the uncomplicated response of the person who doesn’t have to calculate the cost/benefit of helping a neighbor, or, for that matter, a stranger. Most of the time it is offered selflessly, and the helper is embarrassed if she gets anything other than an equally simple thanks.

Kudos are not the point, of course, but now and then they serve to remind someone that they are participants in a good manner of acting. Can’t say I’ve done much in my life that was award worthy, but, late in my tour of duty in  the Marine Corps, I was given a Letter of Commendation.

I had been detached to Pearl Harbor Submarine Base in Honolulu as a liason instructor, shepherding  a new group of Recon Marines through diving school. Part of the training included doing buoyant ascents in a 120 foot tower to simulate escaping from a submarine. While I was there, the personnel in charge of the tower were concerned about how to deal with  a contingent of Spanish sailors there for the training. Nobody spoke Spanish. “I can do it,” I said. And I did.

The letter said, “Corporal Roth displayed a “can do” attitude representing the highest ideals of his service.” Awesome. Not that it was a big deal, I am bilingual. I’m just grateful that, in that moment, my instinct was to step up.

I’d like to think that I’m that way all the time, but, the fact is that when I was going through that training myself , two years prior, I got drunk,  showed up at morning formation in a sad state, and was not permitted to make the big ascent on graduation day. My commanding officer told our gunnery sergeant he considered my actions a personal affront. Maybe so, sorry.

On this trip, after getting the Spanish sailors through the training, I was hanging out with the sailors that ran the school. One of them recalled an earlier group of Marines that came through. He said, “I remember there was one Marine that got fucked up and didn’t get to do the last day of training.””Yeah, that was me,” I said.

Progress, is what I seek, not perfection.




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