Right next to our office building on 43rd Street in Manhattan is a place where people call themselves the Midtown Mob. Its red gate is often closed.
Once it's open, the scene inside this Midtown branch of the Fire Department of the City of New York (FDNY) is stunning. Although a big fire engine takes center stage in the small space, what's most striking is a flag with all the names of firefighters who died during the rescue operation of September 11. Photos, clothing and other memorabilia commemorate the heroes once part of the Midtown Mob.
The solemn atmosphere draws the attention of passersby; some tourists visit the place and chat with the firefighters there.
Many blocks south of Ground Zero in Downtown, flowers are often laid by civilians in front of a wall monument honoring firefighters whose lives were cut short by their heroic deeds during that terrorist attack.
Only recently, New York City had a spectacular Veterans Day parade lasting several hours. Not only Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor David Paterson were present, many of the thousands of people watching along Fifth Avenue were shouting "Thank you" and "thank you for your service" to the marching soldiers and veterans.
Men, women and children, and dozens of high school marching teams and bands, were no less impressive for their huge enthusiasm. Most of Fifth Avenue was blocked that day for the iconic annual parade.
All these reminded me of this year's HBO movie Taking Chance, starring Kevin Bacon.
Marine Lt. Colonel Mike Strobl, played by Bacon, volunteers to escort the body of Lance Corporal Chance Phelps back to his hometown in Wyoming. The movie shows the exceptional care and concern throughout the long journey for the dignity and honor of the soldier who died in Iraq.
The soldier's body is cleaned and prepared for the burial with great attention. The badge is washed like new, the brass polished till shiny, and the Marines' blue uniform well tended.
The scenes driving to the burial site in Dubois, Wyoming, are probably the most moving, with a long procession of cars and trucks following the hearse.
I used to think that patriotism was only taught and promoted intensely in China. But from Hollywood movies to the Veterans Day parade to the Midtown Mob next door, I sense the strong feeling of patriotism among ordinary American people.
Their patriotism and the deep respect and honor to those who have served the country could be a good lesson for many Chinese who don't seem to understand the true meaning of patriotism despite the numerous campaigns in the past decades.
From time to time, heart-breaking news emerges of how certain martyrs' mausoleums have been used as a car parking lot in Wuhan of Hubei, leased to a bear farmer in Yunnan, relocated to a desolate mountain to give way to a construction project in Liaoning or not attended to by anyone for too long.
While everyone in my childhood days 30-40 years ago longed to be a hero, the way heroes are treated here and there these days calls for our deep reflection. A nation that does not honor its heroes is in for a great crisis.
However, under the glossy surface, there are also huge problems in the US. A recent New York Times article said about one-third of all adult homeless men are veterans. And obviously there is a lot to be fixed despite those street parades, Hollywood movies and a new best-selling New York T-shirt with the sign of FDNY.
For China, maybe we can think of a national holiday celebrating the martyrs and people who served the country. Education in patriotism should definitely be reformed to touch people's hearts, instead of repeating some hollow slogans time and again.
(China Daily 11/24/2009 page8)