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“God Bless You”: A personal story

Published: August 29, 2008
Section: Opinions


More than anything else in the world, I want to take a road trip to the Deep South. It’s a possibly irrational fantasy of mine that I have had ever since I went on a cross-country teen tour during the summer after Sophomore year of high school, and one that my mother does not understand.

Nice Jewish girls from Newton Massachusetts who go to Brandeis University are just not supposed to want to cross the Mason-Dixon line, unless, of course, it’s to go to Florida. And even then, only Boca Raton and West Palm Beach are acceptable destinations.

But nevertheless, something inside me burns to go there. I find small town life quaint. I’m infatuated with Evangelicals, obsessed with Confederates, and determined to prove to my mother that the South is not what it was before the Civil Rights Acts of 1964.

The one obstacle to living my dream—aside from where to get the car and the gas money—is that I can’t stand it when people say “God Bless You.”

Don’t get me wrong, I love that people find God, Jesus and the rest of the Bible comforting.

It’s a soothing notion for me that there are people out there like that. I romanticize the idea that people can be saved by having faith, that miracles still happen and that if someone asks him to, God will save your life after you sneeze.

I just don’t believe in it.

Maybe me being Jewish has something to do with it. After all, Jews generally don’t say “God Bless You” unless it’s in the form of “Gesundheit,” in which case it’s more out of good manners than concern for your soul leaving your body.

More than that, though, the God I believe in stopped interfering with the world a long time ago. And, just in case he’s picked it up again, he should probably start off with ending the Genocide in Darfur or Poverty or War in general before he bothers himself with the state of my life.

This was especially true this past summer, seeing as the state of my life was great. For one, it was summer, and on top of that, I had a job. A newspaper job at that.

I was working as an intern at Waltham’s Daily News Tribune—a small town paper with a reporting staff of about three. When one of the reporters quit and there wasn’t enough money in the budget to hire a new one, I was allowed to take time off from answering phones in order to actually write articles.

With that news, I was already in cloud nine when I was assigned to write an article about a firefighter who had just come back from his third tour of duty.

I was intrigued and excited. I thought of it as the first step toward my road trip. After all, in post-9/11, politically polarized America what could be more Southern or Conservative than a man returning home from service in the Middle East?

So I called up the guy’s wife just about as soon as my editor finished telling me the assignment and set up a time to go over to his house.

She said that he didn’t really like talking about his experiences overseas, but that she thought it would make a good article and would convince him that I should come over the next morning.

I thanked her, and as I was about to hang up the phone, I heard her say those three words: “God Bless You.”

I hadn’t sneezed, so I didn’t know what to do. It was as if the words had had the reverse effect of what was intended.

Instead of giving me my breath back, they took it away from me and left me paralyzed with the phone pressed between my ear and shoulder.

After a short yet awkward pause, I managed to muster a “see you tomorrow” before hanging up the phone.

That night, I called my friend Annie, who is from Arizona, and therefore, despite being an Atheist, has more experience with being blessed than I do.

I told her about it, and how the phrase had stopped me in the tracks, my mind fumbling with what to say, hating the phrase while knowing it was said with the best intentions.

She suggested that next time, I just say thanks.

The next morning, I drove to his house. His street looked as though Uncle Sam had thrown up on it. Everywhere you looked it was red, white and blue. It was like being trapped inside of a fun house at a carnival with all patriotic decorations.

Every tree had a yellow ribbon, every house had a flag. There were signs that read “land of the free because of the brave.” It was Fourth of July on steroids, except that it was June.

Now, I’m a pretty patriotic person. I love America. I think it’s great. I especially love the Constitution, and the First Amendment, considering that I’m counting on them to keep me employed for the rest of my life.

The Constitution for me is like a quasi religion. I’m culturally Jewish, but when it comes to believing in something larger-than life, I turn to the founding fathers, or Truth, Justice and the American way.

With the Constitution as my bible, and George Washington as my Abraham, it goes without saying that I disagree with the War in Iraq, a war which was never declared by Congress (as the Constitution says all wars should) and which lead to the Patriot Act and Extraordinary Rendition.

So while I respected the guy I was about to interview for his service (I hold that it is possible to support the troops and not the war effort—i.e. want to bring them home), the excessive jingoism that his homecoming provoked reminded me of Bush’s taking advantage of 9/11 to finish what his Daddy started.

I pulled over next to his house and rang the bell. The guy came out wearing a t-shirt his three daughters had made him a few Father’s Days ago.

Understandably, he didn’t want to talk about his war experiences. All he wanted to talk about was how good it was to be home, and how much he loved the decorations, nice, uppity stuff like that.

As I was about to end the interview though, he told me about a prayer card he had taken with him overseas. The prayer card was given to him by a neighbor who had used it during the Vietnam and Korean wars. That neighbor had gotten it from another neighbor. The theory was that if you read the prayer on the card three times a day, God would bring you home safely.

The firefighter also told me that he had given it to a 19-year-old kid who lived on the street and who had left that morning for basic training after joining the Marines. In August, the kid was getting shipped over to Iraq.

It was a cute anecdote. It added depth to my story. And that was that. The army man’s wife said, “God Bless you” to me again, and, after a slight pause, I did like Annie told me to and said thanks.

Before I could leave, though, the 19-year-old kid’s mom came by the house to drop off some photos she had taken from the night before when the firefighter came home. I was introduced and took advantage of the opportunity by asking her a few questions about her son.

He would get a leave for July 4th, but by the time I was back to Brandeis in the fall, he would be dodging sniper bullets in Iraq, holding onto that stupid prayer card for good luck, and praying that God would bless him and keep him safe through something just a little more life threatening than a sneeze.

I thanked her, and shook her hand. Before I could turn around to leave, she too said those three words.

“God Bless You.”

I started walking to the car, but I couldn’t shake the image of her son, Derek, from my mind.

His mom had shown me his picture. In it he was all dressed up in his army fatigues with his helmet and riffle. Derek wanted to be a police officer when he got back from the war.

His face was young. He was my age, but being 19 and working behind a desk for the summer made 19 too young to dress like a GI-Joe and to be shipped off to a foreign desert to risk your life for your country.

I’m a patriot. And for me, that means speaking up against a war you disagree with.

But for this kid, who was a patriot too, it meant paying back a country that lets you speak out whenever you want with his body, maybe his life.

That struck a chord in me. So I did something I never would have done. Something that I may not ever do again. I turned around, gave a little wave and said:

“You too.”