The Red Arrow Diner is tucked away on Lowell Street in Manchester, N.H. They've been serving up blue plate specials since 1922 and it's a become a mandatory stop on the campaign trail for anybody who wants to take up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
And that's where I found myself on one very cold, very snowy day last January just days before the first presidential primary. I peeled off my winter coat and grabbed the first stool I could find. The waitress told me they made the best cheeseburger in town, so that's what I ordered - along with a root beer. As I was waiting for my food, I had a chance to reflect on my travels over this political season.
I've been through the cornfields of Iowa and the waters of South Carolina's low country. I was nearly mugged in Detroit and caught the flu in Chicago. I'm not sure when it happened, but somewhere between a red state and a blue state, I figured it out.
Most folks across the fruited plain really are alike. We work hard, tend backyard gardens, go to high school football games on Friday night and go to church on Sunday. And in a way, I think that's what makes our country so wonderful.
Consider the state of New Hampshire. As soon as I crossed the state line, I found a Cracker Barrel restaurant, picked up a country music radio station and found a NASCAR racetrack. For a minute, I could've sworn I'd taken a wrong turn and ended up in Alabama.
In between bites of my cheeseburger, I contemplated the American narrative - wondering why we are such a blessed nation. I was able to narrow my list down to five --- five reasons the United States is the greatest nation on earth.
5. Country Music - Country music is American music. Johnny Cash, Reba, Dolly, Gretchen, Alabama - the list goes on and on. There's a certain reality to the songs and the singers. Take, for example, Toby Keith. His patriotic anthem, "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue," said what we were all thinking in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks. And country music singers look like real folks (although it appears Dolly has had some work done - and come to think of it --- so has Kenny Rogers.) The other thing I appreciate about country --- the women look like women and the men act like men. You don't see George Strait walking around with a man bag, do you?
4. Guns - I grew up in the South so I know a thing or two about guns. Unfortunately, I live in New York City --- where we have to make do with pepper spray. It's just not the same. Thank goodness our forefathers had the wisdom to ensure that every American has the right to defend themselves, their property and their nation! The other day I got an email from my friend Sarah. She's the quintessential Southern belle. She's poised, elegant, can make an incredible batch of biscuits and she's got a carry and conceal permit. She often quotes Scarlett O'Hare, "I can shoot straight if I don't have to shoot too far."
3. Barbecue - A country that knows how to smoke a pork butt is a country worth defending. Friends, our barbecue is diverse. In the South we barbecue pigs. In Texas, they barbecue cows. And in California, they barbecue tofu. It's not just food - it's a state of mind.
2. Our Military - A few weeks ago New York City celebrated Fleet Week. Hundreds of sailors and Marines were in town to see the sights and reunite with their families and significant others. Our nation is home to the great volunteer military on the planet. These young men and women understand that our freedom comes with a price. And every day - they gladly stand tall so that we might be free.
1. Freedom - We are a free people. I'm able to write these very words because I am free. We can go to church on Sunday morning because we are free. We gather together in Union Square and protest the government because we are free. Sometimes I wonder if we've forgotten about this most unique and wonderful gift that God has given us. We read the newspapers and magazines and hear about an America that is in decline - an America that has lost its footing on the international stage. The naysayers are free to have their say - but I'm often reminded of Commodore Stephen Decatur. "Our Country," he proclaimed. "In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country."
I was putting the finishing touches on my list when the waitress suggested I should try some dessert.
"What's the special?" I asked.
"Whoopie," she replied.
"But we hardly know each other," I said.
"It's a pie. Whoopie pie," she countered.
As I waited for my pie, I was reminded of some lyrics the great Lee Greenwood wrote. "I'm proud to be an American, where at least I know I'm free. And I won't forget the men who died, who gave that right to me. And I gladly stand up, next to you and defend her still today. 'Cause there ain't no doubt I love this land, God bless the USA."
And God bless Whoopie pie. Happy Birthday, America!