The Little Hyphen has Big Impact…

circled hyphens

The hyphen.

It’s one of our 14 common punctuation marks.

The hyphen is the sign (-) used to join words to indicate they have a combined meaning, or that they are linked in the grammar of a settence, to indicate the division of a word at the end of a line, or to indicate a missing or implied element.

It’s one of those punctuation marks that often gets overlooked or forgotten after the period, question marks and exclamation marks are mentioned.

But I think it may be more responsible for the polarization and division of this nation than just about anything else I can think of.

I’m not really sure when we became the “nation of hyphens” but I’m guessing it was sometime in the 60’s.

It’s another problem we “baby boomers” are responsible for.

In my youthful days of the 50’s, I grew up in a couple of diverse cultural neighborhoods.

There were Austrians, Poles, Hungarians, Germans, Czechs and others living up and down the street.

One of my childhood buddies was Pete Gottschling and we bummed around with Lon Gardner, Larry Buzzard and Alan Berry to name a few.

Summertime was playtime (after chores) and we often played baseball next to Tiffenbach’s in a vacant lot behind the Gardner’s home. We used sickles and rakes and hoes to smooth out a playing surface but every grounder was an adventure if you played the infield.

After baseball, we’d often head for “the woods” where the community water well was located and our baseball bats became our guns as we played “soldier” and/or “cowboys and Indians”.

We built forts out of scrap lumber, climbed trees and did a lot of bike-riding.

I never recalled being aware or concerned about where any of us “came from” because we were just pals, hanging out and growing up.

It wasn’t until junior high that I learned Pete’s parents were from Austria and when they wanted to chew out Pete for some boo-boo, they’d give it to him in German.

It was one of the reasons I took Deutsche in high school.

It was then I started to learn that my neighborhood had connections to all parts of Europe and elsewhere.

But it didn’t matter because we were just kids growing in one of those Norman Rockwell neighborhoods.

We were all Americans.

But then something started to change in high school and I was introduced to the term “Black-American” or “Afro-American”.

Suddenly, we had Polish-American, Spanish-American and Hispanic-American  neighborhoods.

Listen, I believe heritage is important.

But one of the elements that made this nation great was that “melting pot” concept.

Each culture contributing bits and pieces to the stew that is America.

It was going on long before I got here but today, we seem inclined to want to focus on our differences.

We lost our way when the USA became “hyphen America”.

The original intent of the (-) is to “join” words or to “link”  these words.

Unfortunately, I think the (-) has done more to seperate us than to pull us together.

Families have always been proud of “where they came from” and as a kid, I saw that in my neighborhood. I was introduced to many new foods and traditions from those kids I ran around with.

But, on Memorial Day or the 4th of July, we celebrated as “Americans”.

Not German-Americans or Cuban Americans.

Simply Americans.

Those families were no less proud of their heritage than the most fervent  ethnic groups of today.

But we didn’t used a hyphen to tell people who we were.

We were first and foremost Americans and then we would share that we were from Prague or Vienna or Havana.

My life in the military gave me a great perspective on what makes this nation special.

I bumped into men and women from Phenix City, Alabama to Pineville, Kentucky, from New York City (The Bronx, man!) to Malibu.

In fatigue-green, it didn’t matter where you were from or who you knew. The uniform was a great equalizer.

Now my Marine chums and Army pals give me good-natured grief because I joined the “Boy Scouts” of the military. (Thats’ how my Dad, an Army vet, used to kid me. He also thought I looked like Ralph Kramden in my dress blues).

But I just think we could be a whole lot chummier if we shelved the hyphen and just became Americans again.

Focus on what we have in common.

Don’t wory about the differences.

We have a lot of ’em.

But lots of different vegetables, dumplings and meat come together to make a great-tasting ghoulash.

I learned that from watching Nellie Gottschling cooking a big pot of the stove of her Oakdale Drive kitchen.

In the quest to better identify what makes up America, I fear the hyphen may have done more to force us apart that to bring us together.

I’m all for dropping hyphens.

Perhaps I’m just politically and socially naive but as Popeye the Sailor once said, “I  am what I .”

Anyone else with me?



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