Nowhere will that effect be more deeply felt than here in the United States. We, after all, are a country built on running away. We like to present this as the story of generation after generation of immigrants coming to America in search of opportunity. And no doubt that's true; but we also know in our hearts that most of those opportunistic folks were also running away from government programs, endless poverty, annoying neighbors, government taxes and drafts, angry parents, and pregnant girlfriends.
Certainly that's true in my own family. On my Irish father's side, the first Malone in America was running from the Potato Famine. On my mother's Welsh-English side, it was a teenager who signed on a ship to get away from his old man, became an indentured servant in the Colonies, and changed his last name to that of his Dutch 'owner.'
Most of us Americans have similar stories in our family tree, if not in coming to this country, then in heading West during the pioneer days, or the Great Depression, or after WWII. In fact, you can make a very good case that running away -- from the law, from a stultifying life, from the predictable -- in search of adventure, excitement and the unpredictable, is the most important American tradition. Even that quintessential American, Huckleberry Finn, at the end of the greatest American epic, decides that life is getting too nice and safe in Hannibal, Missouri, and 'lights out for the territories.'
Of course, running away inevitably has is cowardice factor: - the fabled husband who goes out for a pack of cigarettes and turns up twenty years later in a new town with a new name and a new family. But even then, and despite the pain they cause, it's hard not to empathize with such figures -- nor, indeed, The Canoe Man. Who among us, on an especially unbearable day, hasn't dreamed of chucking it all and starting over, fresh and new?
That opportunity used to be part of the American Dream. Sure, there were bad guys who took advantage of the chance to move to a new town, change their name and resume their nefarious ways. But the majority of Americans who started over did so with the goal of Getting It Right This Time. And most of them did, or at least did better. And which is better, throwing a young felon or drunk in prison, where he loses all hope and learns all sorts of new criminal skills? Or his counterpart, who heads out West, starts over, and becomes a pillar of the community? I'm not sure there's a simple answer to that or maybe there is.
I live in the oldest American house in Silicon Valley. It was built by a young man who worked as a clerk in a department store in Baltimore, read some penny dreadfuls about the exciting life in the California gold fields -- and took off to make his fortune. He didn't find it in gold, but eventually did in ranching. His son played an important role in the rise of farming and orchardry in Santa Clara Valley, which in turn created the right conditions for the creation of the most powerful and influential business community on the planet.
You think he would have had that kind of impact had continued selling notions and ladies' gloves for the rest of his life?