For the benefit of new readers who did not follow me in my Dabbler days, this is the first in a series of favorite posts from the Dabbler Archives. This piece first appeared in The Dabbler on August 31st 2011.
I could not have chosen a more eventful time for my first visit to America than the summer of 1969. Americans were still reeling from the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the disastrous Democratic Convention the year before. Richard Nixon was President and the word “quagmire” was being used about the Vietnam War. There was an edge of danger in the air. I felt as though I had departed a world of smudgy grays and entered a vivid Technicolor movie. Los Angeles was all bright, searing light and straight lines dissolving into a yellowish smog. Everywhere enormous, garish plastic creatures loomed, the icons of consumer culture, making the city seem one vast Disneyland. Baking heat left me feeling wilted and immobile as though suspended in a thick, viscous liquid. Crouched by an air conditioning unit I read the complete works of Raymond Chandler, another Brit once exiled in paradise.
That summer Americans landed on the moon and I watched it on a television dragged outside onto a sweltering patio in a garden with a lemon tree. My earthly surroundings were no less strange to me than the surface of the moon. I saw my first gun, bulging black and menacing from the belt of an LA cop. One afternoon we drove through Benedict Canyon, the road twisting through a deep cleft in the hills linking the city to the San Fernando valley. I glimpsed luxurious villas behind ornamental gates and exotic foliage. Later that night, in one of those villas, five people including pregnant actress Sharon Tate were knifed to death by the followers of Charles Manson. Intimations of danger were now made flesh.
But none of these was the most shocking sight of the summer. That was reserved for my visit to church. I was completely scandalized when I attended Sunday Mass at a Catholic church in the valley and saw, inside the communion rail, a large American flag. This was my introduction to the thorny issue of Church and State in America. The presence of the flag was particularly potent at a time when its display was seen as an endorsement of the Vietnam War, a war that many now deemed immoral. What was the Catholic Church in
America doing flying this symbol in its most sacred space? I came away from the church seething with outrage but unaware that I had caused a scandal of my own by wearing a miniskirt to Mass. Well, miniskirts were just normal attire in England at the time, indeed most girls didn’t own any other clothes, except blue jeans which I thought unsuitable to wear to Mass. I did have standards. But the fashion had not yet reached California, skirts were still knee length, and I was told “you’re not in Swinging London now you know” as though London was a den of iniquity. With youthful self-righteousness I couldn’t understand all this fuss over a skirt when the symbol of murderous imperialism was brazenly displayed in the inner sanctum of the House of God. Skirt and flag, two scraps of cloth symbolizing the cultural divide I faced that summer.
In time American hemlines climbed to match their British cousins and, by a slow process of osmosis, I absorbed American political culture. I came to understand the presence of that flag by the altar. This was not so many years since Catholic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy had to assure American voters that if elected he would not do the Pope’s bidding. Successive waves of Irish, Italian, and Polish immigrants had to prove that their religious duty to obey the Pope was no impediment to being true, loyal Americans. It is an irony of American history that the children of immigrants have greeted each new influx with the same suspicion and prejudice that their own parents encountered. Displaying the flag in a Catholic Church was a means of saying “I, too, am American.” Today it is Muslims whose loyalty is in question. Perhaps they should follow Catholic example and fly the Stars and Stripes from the minaret of every mosque? But these are more poisonous times, and with the Republican presidential candidates falling over each other to deny evolution and blame a hurricane on God’s wrath, I no longer have much faith in the separation of Church and State.