- Historic Sites
One Englishman’s America
A distinguished military historian’s forty-year quest to plumb our essential mystery: the “secret of a way of life different from any other lived on earth”
February/March 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 1
I love America. I wonder how many englishmen can say that. Most of us know it too little to feel strong emotion one way or the other. New York, Washington, San Francisco, Los Angeles, the Florida holiday resorts—that is the America of most English people. My America is larger altogether. I have visited, for reasons that will emerge, thirty-two of the fifty states and most of Canada as well, and I have been making those visits for nearly forty years. In an idle moment I counted up not long ago the number of U.S. Immigration Service entry stamps in my passports and found nearly fifty. “Boston,” the first one says, in a passport from which a schoolboy face stares back at me.
Then there is a gap of exactly twenty years, 1957 to 1977. After that the stamps come thick and fast. The face gets older, the travels spread wider: Chicago, St. Louis, Dallas-Fort Worth, Atlanta, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Newark, Boston again several times, Denver, Seattle, Honolulu. Had my passport been stamped every time I touched down at an American airport, what a kaleidoscope there would be: Charlotte, North Carolina; Charleston, South Carolina; Montgomery, Alabama; Colorado Springs; New Orleans; Manchester, New Hampshire; Columbus, Ohio; Kansas City, Missouri, and a host of small places I can scarcely decipher from the pages of my travel diaries. Most of those small places have blurred into one: the strip of concrete surrounded by a prairie of brown grass, the concrete terminal, sometimes unconvincingly advertising itself, after the place-name, as an “International Airport,” the porterless luggage collection point, the photographs of local scenic attractions, the advertisements for local commerce, the Avis and Hertz car-rental representatives staring speechlessly into space, the welcome sign from the Lions or Kiwanis or Rotary, the breathless hush of the encompassing car park, the hint of habitation somewhere beyond the horizon.
No matter; I like small American airports. Their sameness is reassuring. It is a guarantee that just a car drive away there will be small white single-story houses, neat streets, chain-link fences, signs at corners signaling Sunday services, white plastic letters behind glass for Church of Christ, gold-leaf Gothic for Episcopalian, and then, as the town center nears, grass verges, spaced elms, Victorian villas in gardened lots, verandas, parked cars, lonely bus stops, doctors’ signboards, funeral chapels, and the first outcrops of shopping and eating. LIQUOR in neon lighting, sometimes with an arrow that flashes on and off, is familiar; so, too, are the Chinese Garden with parking space for diners, the hamburger place, the cocktail lounge with smoked-glass windows, the gun shop, the sportinggoods store, the magazine and book outlet, insurance and travel and savings and loan offices, city hall. Small American airports, like small French railway stations, are the prelude to something fixed and unchanging. English visitors look forward, when they detrain from a branch line in the French provinces, to finding white tablecloths and iron chairs at the edge of the town square, the scent of limes as they take their aperitifs, tomato salads and white Burgundy with their omelettes fines herbes . I look forward, when I deplane in Tennessee or Montana or Ohio, to something quite immaterial: a sense of timelessness, an absolute similarity of architecture and street plan, a pervading calm, a curious slowness—Europe, not America, is the continent of fast driving and pedestrian bustle—the certainty of identical food and service and accommodation and friendliness and uncuriosity.
At cruising height, i like, i positively crave, the undeviating sameness of America from the air. It is what America is about; it is the story of America.
I like that. uncuriosity is one of the reasons I love America. In France, though I speak French well, my accent brands me as an Englishman. In England my accent brands me as—what? Other Englishmen could tell: Accent is the first characteristic by which English people make judgments about one another. In America my accent means nothing at all. When I first visited the country in the 1950s and foreigners were exotic, my voice excited interest. Now, when America is almost as cosmopolitan as anywhere else, it passes without comment. Nothing about me causes comment. I am one of the crowd, simply another atom in a great, shifting, restless, busy, amiable, almost undifferentiated multitude that is the American people. There are other large countries on earth: Russia, China, India. Only the Americans have succeeded in creating a society of complete cultural uniformity, in which one can travel for a thousand, two thousand miles in the sureness that at the end of the journey one will emerge from airplane or bus or motorcar to hear a common language being spoken in an identical form, to find people living in identical houses, to see the crowd dressed in identical clothes, to walk streets built in identical style, to find towns served by identical schools, businesses, public utilities. To an outsider the uniformity of America is profoundly relaxing. America makes no demands on one, imposes no expectations, asks no questions. I love passing through. A curious, delectable, weightless, freefloating trance possesses me when I stop for a moment in places like Hardin, Montana, or Half Moon Bay, California, born of the knowledge that no one will ask who I am or what I do or whence I come or whither I am going.