Popular culture is working hard to convince us to forget America’s past. We have a duty to remember, and not just thrilling, vexing, and violent parts. Here is a secret: America’s history is rich with gems worth finding, holding dear, and passing along. We share more through these stories – of heroism and hope – than anything that divides us. Here is one.
In a moment down on patriotism and hope, questioning the nation’s identity and generosity here is a story worth hearing. It begins close to home. More than nine million Americans were on active duty during the Vietnam War. Those who came home found the gift of service misunderstood – and many were blamed for political choices not their own.
In 1972, a critically acclaimed novel made this point. Patriotism, commitment, and service – especially in Vietnam – too often came with intangible costs. A returning Vietnam veteran is subject to unthinkable injustice, which he confronts with skills learned in battle. Ten years later, that book became a movie, built around one sympathetic, trapped, misunderstood patriot.
Now, put the war, book, and patriot aside. Back in 1774 – that’s right, two years before the Declaration of Independence – one Nathanial Chapman had a son, whose name was John. Nathanial himself would soon be a Minutemen, fighting at the battle of Lexington and Concord. He would serve in the Continental Army throughout the American Revolution.
But the biggest thing Nathanial did, in the context of American history, had that son named John. The Revolutionary War was over by the time John was grown, and his patriotism was of a different stripe. Not a warrior, John was a giver, believer, builder, and benefactor, a generous heart – who measured his patriotism by how much he could give away.
And what did he give? Not wealthy, he was nevertheless strong, energetic, a man of the land, and well-liked. He was ahead of his time, a conservationist. He and his brother went West, which at the time was Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and what became West Virginia.
The boys knew farming, husbandry, and – in time – John learned a tradecraft called nurseryman. He learned to plant orchards. Born in New England, apples were a natural. They were eaten, fed to livestock, used to press cider. Once pressed, pomace was left – just seeds, free for the taking.
In time, John – a born giver, close to country and countryside – struck on an idea. The word recycling did not exist, but he wondered if pomace might be collected and set to reseeding apple orchards. With travel – which ended up lasting five decades – he set about giving away seeds, apple seeds, creating apple orchards – up and down the then-frontier.
Now, this is where the story gets interesting, as so much of American history is. The enthusiasm of this young orchardist – son of a Revolutionary War Minuteman and man of faith – put him at risk more than once, but his resolve to give, teach and serve endeared him to the frontier.
If his father was appreciated in his time, John’s gift to the nation was – like the Vietnam Veterans’ – better understood in the decades afterward. To some, his service was obvious, based on love of country and countrymen, duty, and chance to step up. To others, he was viewed as well-intentioned but out of step. He gave all, asked little, was undeterred by life’s adversity.
So, in case you have not put the pieces together, here is the rest of the story. John Chapman, born in 1774 and laid to rest in March 1845, 176 years ago this week – was “Johnny Appleseed.” His generosity – his own form of personal patriotism – became an exemplar, legendary.
A relative of the author who wrote the novel about that Vietnam Vet, later a movie, apparently knew her apples, including the kind planted by Johnny Appleseed all over young America. They were “Rambo” apples, and the movie’s main character – as you may recall – was “John Rambo.”
Popular culture is working to erase American history, with all its richness, sadness, strength, relationships, wonder, and inspiration. We have a duty to remember. Doing so, gems pop – the sort that seed curiosity, cultivate hope, and remind us to pick fruit others planted – for us.
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