Here I am Pop, back in the same country cemetery outside Carlton, OR where we said good bye to you 10 years ago. I remember the service on that cool afternoon. I remember how strange it was that a man who was born in the days of horse and buggies was brought to rest in a baby-blue Cadillac hearse. I remember returning to the city and writing a column about you for the newspaper where I worked.
I wrote about how you were a vanishing breed: A man who held one job his entire life-farmer. A man who was married to the same woman for 60 years. A man who died in the same farm house where he had been born 89 years earlier. A simple man who found meaning in tilling the earth below him, worshiping the God above him, and loving the family around him - including the granddaughter I married.
But times have changed. After the column was published, lots of people wrote and called to say what a wonderful man you must have been, and how they knew a Pop of their own. But I'm afraid you wouldn't get the same warm reaction were I to write that same column today. America isn't the same country it was even 10 years ago. Much has changed, Pop. Too much.
You're not going to understand this, but you'd be considered, well, "politically incorrect" these days. I remember a man who remained faithful to his wife, taught his children right from wrong and kept his family together despite drought and Depression. But today, Pop, amid my baby boom generation, you'd be guilty of promoting "family values," whose proponents, Hugh Downs told his "20/20" TV audience, are fueled by the same intolerance that fueled Hitler and the Klan.
I remember a man who got tears in his eyes when singing "Amazing Grace" at the tiny Baptist church he helped found in Carlton. But today, Pop, you'd be considered a fool for worshiping some obsolete God when you should be searching for your inner child, winning by intimidation, or awakening the warrior spirit within.
I remember a man who made his grandchildren wind chimes for Christmas and helped other farmers bail their hay when a storm was coming. I remember a man who insisted that we all hold hands before a meal and, when he had finished praying, would give the hands he was holding an encouraging squeeze. But today, Pop, you'd be cast as a cultural villain, a white European male who wears a fur-lined cap and eats meatloaf.
As I said, the country has changed in the 10 years since you died. Oh, some of it's been for the better. If not overcoming our prejudices, we're at least confronting some of them, especially against women and minorities. Recycling has caught on. And the Big Hunk folks finally made a wrapper that doesn't stick to the candy bar.
But evil, if possible, has gotten more evil. Last year, a bomb blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. A mother in South Carolina drowned her two sons so they wouldn't interfere with her relationship with her boyfriend. And this morning's paper told of a St. Louis teacher who died after being punched by a fourth-grader who didn't like his homework assignment. What's going on, Pop? Crack cocaine. Driveby shootings. Assisted suicide. Partial-birth abortions. Video poker. Trashy talk shows. Greedy athletes. Computer pornography. Run away lawsuits. Shock radio. Sexual abuse. And grandparents who must raise their children's children because their sons or daughters are on drugs. All have mushroomed in the last decade.
The abnormal has become normal. Right and wrong have traded places. In 1992, the vice president of the United States suggested it would be better for children to be raised by two parents than one. He was verbally lynched. A year earlier, a famous basketball player revealed he was HIV-positive after having sex with hundreds of women. He was hailed a hero. Your great granddaughters need notes from their parents to get their ears pierced. But in Oregon, they could legally have an abortion without parental permission.
Schools enthusiastically pass out condoms but ban children from handing out Christmas cards. Crazy, isn't it? All sorts of walls are being built between groups of people. From the vicious anti-Christian remarks of Time magazine's 1992 "Man of the Year", Ted Turner, to the Darwin car symbols that ridicule the religious "fish" symbol, Christians like you, Pop, are routinely mocked.
What we've lost in this country, Pop, is trust. We don't trust each other. We don't trust our government. We don't trust our God. What we trust in, Pop, is ourselves, which you once said was a little like standing beneath a lone tree in a field during a lightening storm. Today, trust is the rarest of virtues, mirrored in broken promises of spouses, politicians, even the head of the United Way, who was convicted of embezzling from the charity he directed.
Today, people demand rights and ignore responsibilities. In the land of the free, 1.5 million Americans - almost the population of Philadelphia - live in prisons. In the home of the brave, men who exude great public courage are routinely uncovered as Wizards of Oz: all style, no substance.
The same baby boom generation that so fervently clamors for world peace is filled with people who can't even find peace with the person they once chose to spend a lifetime with. Dashing Hollywood actors promote noble causes, then get caught seeking sex in some red-light district.
Still, even when the public light is shined on them, people rarely humble themselves and admit their mistakes. AIDS cases have increased fivefold since you died, but people still play around with sex as if it were a cheap, harmless toy. We've become like a bunch of your Herefords caught in quicksand: The harder we struggle on our own, the deeper we sink.
So where is the hope that we can free ourselves from this cultural muck? Maybe, Pop, it's in doing what the Coca-Cola folks did. A year after you died, they introduced a new "improved" soft drink formula. It flopped. So Coke admitted they'd blown it, brought back the old formula, and everyone drank happily ever after.
Oh, the intellects will say it's too simplistic, and the politically correct will scoff at it as a return to those intolerant days of family values. But maybe, as a nation, we should humble ourselves. Admit our mistakes. And while keeping the change that's been legitimately good, bring back the original formula. You were an original-formula kind of guy, Pop. You never talked much about faith or values or character or any of that stuff. You just lived it. And I thank you for that.
Every now and then, one of your great-grandsons, while playing baseball out back, will rip a line drive smack into the wind chime you made us. It'll jolt me, as if to say: Don't forget. Don't forget. I haven't, Pop. I can still hear your soft, farm-drawl voice. And I can still feel your calloused hand squeeze mine after a meal-time prayer, as if passing on hope to a desperate generation.