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Welcome to boot camp, citizen soldier

Sheila Gardner

If I am to be a citizen soldier in America’s war, I have a lot of work to do.

I have prayed, gone to church, donated blood and money. But, still, something inside me must change, if this is to be a better place.

This inner struggle played itself out last week in the aftermath of the

terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. In reality, the only person I can change is myself. So, I decided to start out small, to try to remember to be a little nicer, a bit slower to judge, a little smilier.

My daily round trips between Gardnerville and Carson City would be the perfect testing ground. I pledged to take it easy. I stopped for people in crosswalks. I quit snarling at the road crews and I remembered to smile at other drivers.

Then, on Friday, I got stuck for a moment behind a Ford pickup with a license plate holder that read: “I love big boobs and bare hugs”

Oh, dear, I sighed, this is going to be more difficult than I thought.

I hadn’t seen that slogan before. It lacked the ring of, say, “Tippecanoe

and Tyler, too,” or the political correctness of our own president’s “Osama bin Laden, wanted dead or alive.”

Still, we live in the United States and our right to free speech is one of the guarantees I count on every day.

If I say I love America, does that mean I have to love my neighbor, too? I

wrestled with that question most of the day.

On Saturday, I had the great fortune to spend an hour with a neighbor I

really do love.

Her name is Emily. She is 8, intelligent and the soul of sweetness. We have

taken my dog on many walks together and I always come away with my spirit restored. I wasn’t sure where our conversation would go, heeding the advice of professionals not to dwell on the events of the past week with children.

“So,” I asked, “How’s it going?”

By the end of the first block, we had discussed life in the third grade,

Halloween costumes, chili dogs, why we like dogs better than cats and Johnny Appleseed. Her class had just started to learn about Helen Keller and frankly, Emily admitted, she wasn’t very

interested. But she was willing to give Helen a chance.

“What’s not to like about Helen Keller?” I am thinking to myself. But I kept

quiet.

What Emily was really excited about was that on Monday – the day before

America blew up – she learned to play the piano. She was practicing hard and could already play with both hands. Emily couldn’t wait for the next lesson so she could show her teacher what she had learned after just one week.

Emily was getting on with her life, confident that when Monday rolled around she would be prepared to deal with whatever the day would bring: piano lessons, Braille, or tacos for lunch.

We walked the mile or so to the old playground at the school district

office, tied the dog to a pole. took a few spins on the merry-go-round and

the swings and climbed the jungle gym. We returned home by way of Minden Park, chatting and laughing under a Nevada sky so perfectly blue you’d wonder how anyone could have a care in the world.

We went back to her house and she thumped out “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” “The Halloween Song,” and “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” the best I ever heard them played.

Emily was so engrossed and excited to be playing the piano, she barely

noticed when I left to return to work in a world where the grownups were preparing for war.

I saw Emily again Monday after school.

“How’s it going with Helen Keller?” I asked.

“Wait till I show you,” she said. “I learned how to spell my name in sign language!”

She closed her eyes and expertly worked her fingers to spell out

“E-M-I-L-Y,” instantly adapting her world to that of a little blind girl who was her age 123 years ago.

That’s how you do it, I thought to myself, one musical note, one letter or

one new idea at a time.

I started thinking about the Ford pickup driver and the license plate holder. For the hundredth time, I reminded myself it’s just a piece of metal.

Then I thought about what that driver might think of me if we ever met face

to face. After all, acceptance is a two-way street. No big boobs here, no bare hugs. After Sept. 11, though, maybe a hug, maybe even a bear hug.

Sheila Gardner is the night desk editor at the Nevada Appeal.