A sequel to Hands Across America could do us all some good

U.S. President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan, joined by daughter Maureen and children of White House staff, clasp hands and sing during the Hands Across America line in front of the White House on May 25, 1986.
U.S. President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan, joined by daughter Maureen and children of White House staff, clasp hands and sing during the Hands Across America line in front of the White House on May 25, 1986. AP file photo

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 few could recall the exact dates of their illness.

My bout with the pox, however, was memorably timed. It coincided with the biggest event of the year: Hands Across America.

It was the pinnacle of mega-charity events of the 1980s, on the heels of the popular benefit concerts Live Aid and Farm Aid, which supported African famine victims and small American family farms respectively.

Organizers envisioned an event that would bring millions of people together in a human chain spanning the United States in an effort to combat hunger and homelessness.

Hands Across America was widely publicized, complete with a theme song that possessed an earnestness that’s almost embarrassing in retrospect. But at the time, all this cheap appeal to emotion worked.

I felt the world might never witness an event of this magnitude again, and I was desperate to be a part of it. I was even willing to spend my own $10 to secure a 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.

I could only press my face to the glass and watch as people made history without me. I was devastated watching the crowd sway in unison as they sang together.

The whole event was on the saccharine side, but I remember feeling moved by it, even though I couldn’t appreciate, at that 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 we have also come to prize. Puritan leader John Winthrop, whose “Model of Christian Charity” sermon has often been quoted by politicians, 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 ...”

Hands Across America embodied all of this; for those 15 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 it 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 united behind a common purpose.

I’ve experienced small moments of profound connection in the intervening years, but I’d love to feel a replay of unity on such a grand scale. Perhaps someone will restage the event for its 50th anniversary, though I will be old enough by then to have the shingles, so maybe I’d miss out yet again.

Today, it often seems the schisms between Americans have grown large enough to swallow us whole. But I still believe, perhaps naively, in our power to bridge those divides 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, and 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 a common humanity and bound by love if we choose it.

Joanna Manning is a North Tacoma resident who teaches English composition at Bates Technical College. Check out her writing blog, including a longer version of this piece, at www.jlmanning.com