In November 1972, I arrived in Chile to commence my two-year stint as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. My first posting was to Linares, a small town of around 38,000 people about 200 miles south of Santiago.
To say that I was not in Kansas anymore would be an understatement. At least the Munchkins spoke English. I, on the other hand, struggled mightily with the local Spanish dialect, Castellano, notwithstanding the intensive language training I had received during the previous eight weeks. While my mouth was grappling with a foreign tongue, my stomach was trying to come to grips with an unfamiliar cuisine. And sometimes it lost its grip.
This essay is based loosely on some remarks I delivered at a flag raising ceremony in Arlington, Virginia on July 4, 2018.
What does it mean, “to be an American”? What defines us as a people? Some believe it is our fierce independence and dogged questioning of every new proposition, character traits often confounding to others. Baron von Steuben, a Prussian general who was enlisted by General Washington to train the raw recruits of the Continental Army, quickly encountered these vexing qualities.
Upon arriving at Valley Forge he discovered that his new charges were much different than the European soldiers he was used to commanding—men who were bred to deference and accustomed to obeying their superiors. In a letter to an old Prussian comrade after the war, von Steuben explained how he had to modify his regular approach: “You … tell your soldier, ‘Do this,’ and he does it; but I am obliged to say [to an American], ‘This is the reason why you ought to do that,’ and then he does it.” This should not have come as a complete surprise to the General since these were the same folks who had recently asked: “Why should we have to pay a tax on tea we didn’t consent to and, why don’t we have the right to elect representatives to Parliament?”