Pop Quiz: What words are engraved along the top of Oak Park‘s main post office?

As post offices go, ours is pretty remarkable. It was the product of WPA work crews in the 1930s during the depths of the Depression-the Works Progress Administration, one of those socialist redistribution schemes that spread the wealth and saved our butts 70 years ago, putting lots of people to work and back on their feet.

This particular structure is classical in design and monumental in mass. Though simple, it boasts lovely details inside and out, but that’s not why I sometimes find myself gazing at it.

Along both the

Lake Street
Kenilworth Avenue
sides along the upper facade, the words “United States of America” are engraved large in the limestone. Though easily overlooked by day, at night, illuminated from below, the words stand out.

Not “United States Post Office,” mind you, or “Postal Service.” Nowhere else do I see the name of our country so prominently, almost proudly proclaimed. Very little surrounding adornment draws our attention away, which may be why the words pop. For seven decades, they have offered silent, steady testimony.

I’ve been looking at those words for years now, wondering if anyone else notices them at all. We worship our flag and mythologize “
America,” but the full name of our country gets short shrift. It is long and prosaic and usually gets abbreviated-U.S. or U.S.A.

The other night, on the brink of a critical presidential election, I found myself contemplating them anew: “
United States“-a unity attached to a plurality, comprising a paradox. Americans have long dreamed of a unified country, but our fragmented confederation usually gets the better of it. Unity eludes us. It is our ongoing challenge, our national contradiction.

But when I leapfrogged the middle two words and focused on “United America,” the name came alive. If Barack Obama was elected last night, those who didn’t vote for him will be disappointed, but the country stands a real chance of coming together in a way that hasn’t happened since World War II and the Depression-since this post office was built, in fact.

If McCain was elected, Obama voters will be devastated and this country will be even more divided than before. That’s what was at stake last night-disappointment vs. devastation, unity vs. division. If the forces of division won yet again, then we took a giant step backward.

When was the last time this country did something that really made you proud? It’s been awhile. I remember
July 20, 1969, the day we landed on the moon. That was a good day for the United States of America. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was a good day. Jackie Robinson’s first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers was a good day. V-E Day and V-J Day. The Emancipation Proclamation.

The day WPA workers dedicated a beautiful new post office building was a good day in
Oak Park-government at its constructive best, its most democratic.

Those were the days this country took a step forward, showed courage, realized our greatness as a people.

Did I miss something or has our greatness gone into hibernation since 1969? We’ve made modest progress on women’s rights, gay rights, civil rights. The end of communism wasn’t our achievement. The day the Berlin Wall fell was a great day for
Germany, Eastern Europe and Russia. That was their greatness, not ours. We simply reaped the benefits.

Depending on last night’s results,
Nov. 4, 2008 may go down as a great moment, one small step for a man, one giant leap for the rest of us. If not, then much of the country is right now in the throes of despair, not at all sure this country will ever achieve greatness again.

Tonight, I plan to walk by the post office and look at those words:
United States of America. I hope I’ll still be able to see “United America.” I hope the words will move me in a way I haven’t felt for a long, long time.

They are good words. It’s a good country. It could be a great country-if we have the courage to move ahead.

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