Excerpt from Grandpa Jack
Jack Dodger, an unlikely third party presidential candidate, has stopped in St. Louis on the Fourth of July for a day of campaigning.
Two mornings after Jack left the hospital, the campaign team loaded up the RV and departed Washington without fanfare, their numbers increased by two. Billy and Wilton set a course that took them to Charleston, West Virginia; Cincinnati; and Louisville. They continued their strategy of holding large rallies in the cities and impromptu visits in small towns. Wendy became a familiar sight and, without anyone planning it, she became a valuable asset for the campaign. With her at Jack’s side, and quite often sitting on his shoulders, Jack’s image was beginning to change. While the campaign never targeted senior citizens exclusively, Jack’s age and his Golden Eagles sponsorship had initially attracted a predominately senior following. But now with his young family in tow, Jack was beginning to be perceived as representing all generations and not just his own.
Billy and Wilton began planning more rallies with a family theme. Local Golden Eagles members were encouraged to bring along their grandchildren, which in turn, would coax their voting-age parents to come. And rather than just stop in at diners when they rolled into small towns, they began targeting playgrounds, ballparks, and other places where the youngest generations—and their parents—might be found.
With each mile that they placed between themselves and Washington, the echoes of Jack’s collapse and worries about his health and age became more and more faint. Caroline saw that he got more rest and plenty to eat, and the presence of her and Wendy meant that they spent more nights in motel rooms. But also, Jack just seemed more comfortable and at ease back in the heartland. Away from the monuments and the weight of history that he found so overwhelming in Washington, Jack again began to believe the plausibility of a common man being called to an uncommon purpose.
That was to be his theme for the day as the RV rolled into St. Louis on the morning of July 4 for a full day of events along the Mississippi River. The riverside parks near the Gateway Arch were bustling with tens of thousands of people attending the annual St. Louis Fair, and there were endless opportunities for Jack to mingle and be seen.
The atmosphere was festive, and Jack couldn’t help but be swept up in the spirit of the day. He and Franky challenged each other and anyone else who was willing to play skill games along the midway, but the highlight of the afternoon came when Franky dared Jack into taking the seat of honor in a charity dunking booth. Jack survived the throws of Franky, Kevin, and even his own daughter, but finally it was a little league champ from Springfield that plunged Jack to the bottom. Being a good swimmer, he sat at the bottom for a moment and waved at the crowd before rocketing to the surface to the sound of cheers and applause.
By late afternoon it was time to prepare for the rally to be held at the edge of the fairgrounds. Billy suggested Jack go back to the RV and get straightened up a bit, but Jack squelched the idea. “They’ve already seen me under water and soaking wet. It won’t do any harm for them to see me a bit rumpled too.” Jack’s face was sunburned, and his clothing was wrinkled as he stepped up to the microphone.
“When I was five years old, my parents took me to my first big Independence Day celebration, and the sights and sounds of that day are still vivid in my memory. Most of all, I remember sitting on a lakeside in my father’s lap watching fireworks, and him telling me how ordinary people like us endured the danger and harm of real missiles and bombs so that we might enjoy the freedom and life that we have. That was during the Depression of course, but even then, my father said that the little we had could be measured as wealth compared to what some people had in other lands.
“That is still so true today. We have so much to be thankful for, and we owe so much of it to common people who accepted uncommon challenges. I believe America will continue to be great as long as people continue to step forward and accept challenges. Granted, we don’t face threats from invading armies, but the strength and character of our nation is still being tested—from within, and in subtle, yet dangerous ways.
“So the question I have for you today is, how will you respond to these tests? When a new family down the street is harassed because they look or speak differently, will you go along with the crowd, or will you risk being humiliated to be their neighbor?
“When your boss oversteps his or her authority at the expense of others, will you play it safe and hold your tongue, or will you risk your job to stand up and say, ‘That’s enough’? When a friend makes a miserable mistake, will you turn your back and walk away, or will you risk embarrassment to help with their rehabilitation? If you make a mistake and someone else is blamed, will you hide in the shadows, or will you step forward to accept the consequences?
“Now I know what you’re thinking, ‘Jack, these are of little consequence. None of these things is going to cause someone to be beaten or imprisoned, let alone killed.’ Well that may be true, but we live in a culture of growing self-centeredness. And I fear that each time we, as individuals, take the selfish way out, we chip away at what’s made our nation great—our collective moral character.
“So I’m asking you on this July Fourth to recommit yourselves to being good citizens. Remember what this day is about. Remember that the greatness of our nation was built by the greatness of individuals. Each of you, as an American, has inherited that legacy.”
Jack’s speech was well received by the crowd, and he found himself signing autographs and posing for pictures. Sensing that Jack’s energy might be fading with the evening light, Caroline nudged Billy, and he in turn tried to bring an end to an autograph session that could have gone on for hours. Billy suggested that they retire to the RV, but Jack said no.
“I want to stay,” said Jack. “I want us all to stay and enjoy the rest of the festivities. These are special times, and we shouldn’t miss them. We should drink them in.”
And so Jack and his family—Caroline, Wendy, Franky, Billy, Wilton, and Kevin—found a vacant piece of green lawn and sat down with the Gateway Arch towering gracefully overhead. There, Jack told Wendy about Lewis and Clark, who set out from St. Louis to explore the West, and how they too were going to cross the mountains and descend to the Pacific Ocean. Franky taught Kevin the words to military tunes as a band played nearby. Billy and Wilton set aside their schedules and plans and pressed Caroline to tell them what it was like growing up as the daughter of Jack Dodger.
The band struck up Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” and the sky blazed with fireworks. Little Wendy shrieked and ducked her head as the first rockets exploded, and Jack picked her up and cradled her in his lap.
“It’s okay, Little Blossom,” he said. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. Cover your ears if you wish, but don’t miss the pretty lights.”
Wendy did cover her ears at first, but soon the “popping flowers in the sky” captivated her eyes, and she couldn’t help but clap her hands with delight.
As the fireworks exploded overhead and cast their glittery reflections on the legs of the Arch, Jack felt more at ease than he had in weeks. The day had gone well, the reception had been enthusiastic, and nobody asked him about his age or his health or the seriousness of his intentions. He hadn’t heard that nagging little voice of doubt either. Perhaps, it had finally gone away for good, or maybe, it had just been temporarily drowned out by the percussion of skyrockets. Jack was content. It felt good to be an American. It felt good to be alive.