A small moment when patriotism came easy
I don’t recall exactly what I was doing that morning 37 years ago — probably at home wrangling my big hair with a curling iron and applying frosted purple eye shadow — but I remember ending up on the courthouse steps at noon, dressed in a red robe. I was in the second row of my high school’s choir, waiting for our cue to sing “America the Beautiful.” Thousands of onlookers waved flags and welcome home banners, honoring the man who prompted all this hubbub. Jimmy Stewart, Hollywood actor and hometown hero, had returned to quaint Indiana, Pa., to celebrate his 75th birthday.
From my vantage point on that day — May 21, 1983 — I could see the townspeople crowded along Philadelphia Street, our main drag, propping kids on shoulders and snapping photos with Instamatic cameras. A volunteer fireman unveiled a nine-foot bronze statue of Jimmy on the courthouse lawn, and the crowd of thousands sang “Happy Birthday.”
Taking the podium, Jimmy spoke in his iconic, stammering way. But his words were interrupted by the sound of a telephone ringing. Not a digital smartphone ringtone, but the jingling trill of a fully-wired telephone. Jimmy paused before realizing that the ring was coming from the podium itself. He stooped his lanky frame to take a peek, and there it was — a rotary phone blasting its brassy ting-a-ling from a shelf under the slanted top.
“Heh ... Hello?” he stuttered, the handset held to his ear from a dangling spiral cord, “This is Jimmy Stewart.” The fascinated crowd roared with laughter.
“Can you hear me, Jimmy?” the voice of U.S. President and fellow actor Ronald Reagan blared over the loudspeakers. “I’ve sent some of my boys to wish you a Happy Birthday,” he said. The stunned crowd fell silent in disbelief. Not only was a huge Hollywood star standing, in the flesh, in front of our courthouse, but he was talking to the President of the United States.
Just when we all reached to pinch ourselves, believing it must be a dream, a sound like nothing we’d ever heard ripped through the atmosphere. We looked up to see a flash of massive, angular metal streaking 500 mph over Philadelphia Street, a split second ahead of the deafening blast of jet engines at close range.
Jimmy, a decorated Air Force veteran B-24 pilot, ducked instinctively before realizing it was the Thunderbirds, flying over Philadelphia Street on orders from his pal, Ronnie. Babies cried, women screamed, children clapped hands over ears. We’d never experienced this before. Fear and adrenaline pulsed in our veins until we could process what was happening.
The Thunderbirds did several loops, giving reality time to settle. This moment in our collective lives was, quite simply, awesome. We were in awe of the famous men on that telephone call, but also, of human ingenuity, of community, of God and country, and of the notion that any American, even those raised in small towns, can accomplish great things.
The festivities continued all weekend. There was a parade, a ribbon cutting, a fire station breakfast, a film festival, a dinner dance, a Boy Scout event, and even a “talent show” where superstar Jimmy and his wife Gloria sat in folding metal chairs at the skating rink for two hours, graciously applauding every lousy musical act in Indiana County, including mine.
Even though our town intended to honor Jimmy Stewart, clearly, he ended up honoring us. When asked if he thought much about Indiana while living in Beverly Hills, Jimmy replied, “Every day. This is where I sort of made up my mind about certain things, about hard work being worth it, about community spirit, about the importance of a family, about the importance of God and the church.”
Today, as patriotism seems shrouded in turmoil, division and hatred, I want to remember what I felt on the courthouse steps that day in 1983. I hope, perhaps with small-town naivete, that soon, we will gather again — not in anger and protest, but in collective awe for all that is good and beautiful about the United States of America.