I contracted the chicken pox toward the end of May 1986. Anyone who came of age before the varicella vaccine will likely remember their own itchy weeks at home isolated from school friends, but I'd wager that few could recall the exact dates of their illness. My bout with the pox, however, was memorably timed, as it coincided with one of the biggest events of the year: Hands Across America.
Hands Across America was the pinnacle of mega charity events of the eighties, following on the heels of the popular benefit concerts Live Aid and Farm Aid, which supported African famine victims and small family farms in the United States respectively. Organizers envisioned an event that would bring millions of Americans together holding hands in a human chain across the United States in an effort to combat hunger and homelessness.
The event was widely publicized, complete with a schmaltzy theme song and an even schmaltzier video featuring plenty of interracial hand holding and shots of celebrities mingling with the common folk while bald eagles soared overhead and Lady Liberty looked on. Its earnestness is almost embarrassing in retrospect, but at the time, at eight years old, all of this cheap appeal to emotion worked. This seemed like an event of such magnitude the world might never witness the likes of it again, and I was desperate to be a part of it. I was even willing to spend my own $10 to secure my place in line. Then the chicken pox arrived.
It was bad enough that a virus had crushed my dreams of participating, but to add insult to injury, the human chain passed right in front of my father's house in Bedford, Pennsylvania, mere feet from my bedroom window, where I could only press my face to the glass and watch as people made history without me. I was devastated. And so itchy. It was an uncomfortable combination.
At 3:00 pm Eastern time, radio stations across the country played the "Hands Across America" theme song, and members of the chain began to sway in unison as they sang along. I can't attest to the truth of this part of my memory--it may be a fiction my mind has created to feel that I still experienced the event as everyone else did--but I remember opening my window and singing along with the crowd. If my body couldn't be a part of the chain, at least my voice would be part of the chorus. People smiled up at me sympathetically as we sang:
So we must learn to love each other See that man over there, he's my brother. And when he laughs (I laugh) And when he cries (I cry) And when he needs me I'll be right there by his side.
The lyrics only got more saccharine from there (this was a fundraiser after all). But I do remember feeling moved by the whole thing, even though I couldn't appreciate, at that young age, the enormity of the problem the event was trying to address. I only knew that everyone seemed sincerely interested in standing together to lift each other up--a communion of sorts, the kind that strips us of all pretense and lays bare our fundamental humanity. It was one of only a handful of such moments I've experienced in my life, and possibly the only one that wasn't the direct result of a sudden tragedy.
Community has always been at the heart of the American experience, a counterbalance to the individualism that we have also come to prize. Puritan leader John Winthrop, whose “Model of Christian Charity” sermon was often referenced by President Reagan in his speeches, preached the value of community to his fellow colonists as they embarked on their journey to the New World:
We must delight in each other; make others' conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work as members of the same body.
Hands Across America embodied all of this in a literal way—for those fifteen minutes, participants were physically part of one body, joined together to celebrate their strength and to suffer with those in need. Part of what intrigued me about the event at the time was the thought that, by joining hands with the person next to me, I would become part of something larger, not just a physical body that stretched all the way to the Pacific Ocean, but a community that was united behind a common purpose.
I’ve experienced small moments of profound connection in the intervening years, but I’d love to feel that sense of unity on such a grand scale again. Perhaps someone will restage the event for its 50th anniversary. I will be old enough to have the shingles by then, so the timing would be perfect for me to miss out on the experience yet again. (Or I will abandon my community concerns and see how far varicella will travel down a human chain.)
If I were to allow my pessimistic view of the world to take over at this point, I might lament that so little seems to unify us anymore. In fact, it often seems the schisms between us have grown large enough to swallow us whole. But I still believe, perhaps naively, in our power to bridge those divides. I witnessed as much on that afternoon in May all those years ago.
I believe we can harness that power again in a thousand small ways, through simple acts of communion, by making meaningful connections with those around us. By offering our hand to our neighbor today, a stranger tomorrow. By focusing on the ties that bind rather than what divides. By finding reasons to sing together. By remembering that, as Winthrop preached during that harrowing journey across the sea, we are members of the same body, bound by our common humanity, and bound by love if we so choose it.
An abridged version of this essay was published in the Tacoma News Tribune under the headline “A sequel to Hands Across America could do us all some good,” November 6, 2018.