The Day the Lights Went Out
A City on a Hill and a Light of the World
The year was 1630. An exhausted group of travelers stood on the deck of the passenger ship Arbella and watched the Massachusetts coastline come into view. Weeks before, they had left England and crossed the ocean with their new charter and a great vision. Standing among them was John Winthrop, the man who would be the future governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Winthrop had a vision for the colony he would govern, and he shared this vision in a sermon to his fellow countrymen before they left the ship. “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us,” he said. He vowed that Massachusetts Bay would set an example of charity, affection, and unity to the world. He promised they would shine a light that offered freedom and opportunity to all, and they did.
As Time Goes By
About three hundred years later, in the year 1912, a twelve-year old boy in a Middle Eastern country a few thousand miles away saw that light. It led him to board a ship with his brother and two sisters and to cross that same great ocean. Arriving at his destination, he saw the Statue of Liberty promising sanctuary to “…huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” That boy’s name was Ned Lewis. Well, it wasn’t actually Lewis, and it wasn’t actually Ned either. The officials at Ellis Island looked at this skinny little kid with a Lebanese name and decided he needed something more American, but still resembling his own. Elias came closest—but they had just given that to the group who checked in ahead of him. They settled on Lewis. Since there was no English equivalent for his first name, which was, roughly translated, Numar, they thought Ned suited him just fine. So he was, ever after, Ned Lewis.
That twelve-year old Lebanese boy, who would become my father, left the ship and made his way to Eastport, Maine where members of his extended family were waiting. They were cousins. (In an Arab family, just about every other Arab is a cousin.) He was able to get a job in a sardine factory since there were no child labor laws in the early 1900s. He was so short he had to stand on a crate to pack the fish. He impressed his bosses with his determination and positive attitude, and in a short period of time, they took him down off the box and let him run errands for them. He was pretty good at that, too.
Young Ned Lewis worked hard. He supported his siblings, And, he saved his money. When he was older, he made a trip to the little town of Cairo, Illinois to visit other “cousins.” As luck, or fate, would have it, on his way out of town, he saw a small grocery store with a “for sale” sign in front of it. It looked like a good opportunity, so he bought the store and sent for his brother and sisters. More hard work followed, and soon the Lewis family was able to buy a bigger grocery store and, for good measure, a confectionary and variety store next door for my aunt. That was followed by an even bigger grocery store—a supermarket if you will—and a second, more specialized, variety store. Just to diversify his assets, my dad bought a couple of farms in the area outside Cairo and hired tenants to grow alfalfa, cotton, and wheat.
As my dad’s enterprises prospered, he proved he was just as smart an investor as he was a businessman. He put his earnings into blue chip stocks. The money earned from those stocks offered him and his family security for life. All the while, he never forgot those less fortunate than he. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, he let his light shine on everyone who walked in his store. If you could pay for groceries, fine. If you couldn’t, he fed you until you could. And if you never could, he understood. That’s the kind of man my father was.
He married (probably the daughter of someone’s cousin) and had five children. I was the eldest. He sent us all to college, in my case, more than once: BA, MA, and Ph.D. He became one of the most respected citizens of Cairo, Illinois and was a pillar of the Episcopal Church. He joined the Freemasons and was an active member of the Chamber of Commerce until his death. That little immigrant boy epitomized the American dream.
The Times They Are A’Changing
Now, consider this. Under the current administration, my father wouldn’t even have been allowed off the boat. An immigrant boy from an Arab country with three siblings under ten years of age and no visible means of support, he would have been sent right back to Lebanon. Unbeknownst to anyone, he did have invisible means. His mother, my grandmother, had been widowed by the untimely death of my grandfather, a contractor who suffered an appendicitis attack on a job site far from Beirut. Since there were no medical facilities nearby, he died. But that’s another story. My crafty grandmother converted their savings to diamonds, which she sewed into the hem of her skirt so that family members would not take her money and make her a virtual servant in their household. This was not cruel, merely the custom back then. Being a widow in a traditional Arab family was not an enviable position. She gave my father the money to emigrate to the United States—to the city on the hill—promising to join them later. But that, too, is another story.
The End of It All
Let’s go back to those Puritan immigrants I left aboard the Arbella in 1630. As they debarked, they contemplated their futures, and they dared to dream of good fortune in a land of Christian values and endless possibility. For many of them, that dream came true. Once ashore, they built homes and established towns. They raised families. They acquired worldly goods and passed laws to protect their rights and property. The more adventurous among them moved west and created new cities. All the while, their light shone from the city on a hill. Tom Lea expressed the state of things in his 1952 novel The Wonderful Country: “Oh how I wish I had the power to describe the wonderful country as I saw it then.”
And then, it ended. On November 8, 2016, Donald J. Trump was elected president of the United States. Within weeks, he signed executive orders excluding many immigrants: Syrians fleeing their ravaged and war-torn country, Mexicans looking north for economic opportunity, Muslims seeking escape from Islamic extremists, and little Lebanese boys chasing dreams. He pulled their welcome mat, and undid three hundred eighty-seven years of history. The city on a hill in the wonderful country turned out its lights.
Filed under: Living in Interesting Times