We All Come From Away

This morning I did a quick internet search. The subject was camaraderie among pilots.  I found myself, after the usual wandering about, reading the profile of Kurt Schulze.  Mr. Schulze is a member of an informal group of older pilots who gather every Wednesday morning at a Denny’s in Oceanside, California, to reminisce about flying.  They call themselves the Old, Bold Pilots, the name taken from a famous remark about flying, said to have been uttered in 1949 by early airmail pilot E. Hamilton Lee.  (“There are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots.”)  This group would seem to refute that admonition, which nevertheless remains good advice. In addition to test pilots and airline pilots, many of them are military pilots, navigators, engineers, mechanics and crew chiefs from the World War II, Korea, and Vietnam eras.  But here is the thing.  Among the profiles, I noticed Mr. Schulze in particular.  He was born in Germany in 1921 and flew 103 missions for his country during World War II.  He ended the war as a prisoner of U.S. and French forces, was returned to Germany in 1947 and in 1951 emigrated to California, where he eventually became a U.S. citizen.  And many years later joined his fellow pilots on Wednesday mornings for breakfast and the camaraderie that all pilots seem to share despite their livery.  No doubt there are exceptions, but pilots, even military pilots whose job it is to control the skies on behalf of their respective countries, seem to share a bond that transcends those national allegiances.

One of my great privileges as a flight instructor for many years has been to work with flight students from many nations, each of whom has been here in the United States not merely to learn to fly but to work, to live, to seek opportunity.  They recognize that the freedom to fly we enjoy in the United States exists nowhere else in the world.  A year ago, I was fortunate to accompany my good friend and fellow pilot, Adam Broome, on most of his circumnavigation of the world.  When people ask me what I learned from that flight of many weeks, I know immediately the answer.  Flying is an expression of freedom simply not tolerated in many countries and inaccessible to the common man in most others. (For a more lighthearted, but quite true, list of the other lessons learned, see Flying Around the World: Rules to Live By.)

This story of Mr. Schultz and these thoughts inspired me to send an email this morning to an old friend.  He was a German flight student of mine some twenty years ago when he worked for a German company here in North Carolina.  He and his wife had two young daughters and when his company suggested that it was time for him to return to Germany, he said, “No, I think I’ll stay.”  He politely declined and stayed on here with his family to build a life in the United States.  He and his family relished the freedom of movement, the opportunity, the optimism they found here and, not inconsequentially, the opportunity to fly.  He once said to me, “George, you and other Americans should appreciate that, here in the United States, the default position is that one can do anything he wishes to do unless the government can demonstrate a good reason why it should not be allowed.  Elsewhere in the world, the default position is often no, rather than yes.  It makes all the difference when we start at yes.”  He has lived on the west coast, the east coast, and parts in between, but we have remained friends over the years and talk now and then.  He has continued to obtain additional ratings and certificates and now, with his flight instructor certificate, instructs part time, so we continue to share our love of flying and now of teaching.  He and his family eventually earned U.S. citizenship.  He knows more about U.S. history than most of the people I know.  His daughters are grown.  One works in the California state legislature.  The other serves in the U.S. Air Force.

I think of him every year on the 4th of July when we native-born Americans quite rightly celebrate our country but sometimes act as if we alone made it great.  I sent this email to him this morning.

“I always think of you and your family on the 4th of July when we in this country are waving the flag and feeling all patriotic.  I try never to talk politics at the airport because nothing good comes of it, particularly in these days when the country seems to be going in the wrong direction at an appalling pace.  We seem to forget that we are a nation of immigrants.  We all came from somewhere else.  I have long contended that, to the extent that this is a successful country, it is successful because it is a nation of people who came from somewhere else, who are here because they chose to be here — or their ancestors did — and sacrificed to be here.  We are a nation of people who had the initiative and the courage to cross an ocean, literally and figuratively, and start a new life, often with very little with which to begin.  It is a nation of people who take risks, who seek something better, who are willing to work hard to achieve something better, and who want something better for their kids. 

“A year or so ago, in the midst of the political campaign, I got so infuriated listening to a subset of Americans ranting and complaining about immigrants that I actually looked up the list of Nobel Prize winners from the United States and found exactly what I knew I would find … a very high percentage of them were born somewhere else and even more had names that clearly suggested heritage from another part of the world.  In fact, if you look closely at the list and know something of world history, you can discern the various waves of immigration to the United States, often triggered by trouble and lack of opportunity elsewhere in the world, Polish and Italian in the early part of the century, German and Austrian during the 30s and 40s, Asian in the 70s and 80s and so on.  And since the Nobel was created only a hundred or so years ago, it does not reveal what we know to be true — that so much of the achievements of the 19th century in this country — the companies founded, the scientific achievements, the progressive social movements, etc., — were created by people recently arrived from elsewhere.

“I spent a little more time this morning looking at the list.  Since 1906, when Theodore Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the United States has been awarded 363 Nobel Prizes for great achievements in science, mathematics, medicine and physiology, economics, chemistry, physics, literature and the promotion of peace in the world.  These are the great contributions to human knowledge of this century.  Of those 363 Nobel Prizes in which our country can take pride, 102 of them were awarded to men and women born in other countries who chose to do their work and live their lives in the United States.  The list of birth countries is long and many of the native born Americans on the list have names that bespeak of other countries and cultures. I have attached a version copied directly from Wikipedia.  Note the photo of Bill Clinton posing proudly with the seven United States Nobel laureates from 1998.  Also note that, of the seven, three were born in another country: one in Germany, one in Austria, and one in China. 

“Which is all by way of saying that I am proud that you and your family have chosen to live in the U.S.  At a time when I am dismayed by the political and social climate in this country, it gives me hope that you and your family are here and that your children are already contributing to making this country, into which I was born and which you have chosen, better.

“Happy 4th of July, Claus.”

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