NICKELSVILLE, Va. — Somewhere between Nickelsville and Bear Wallow Hollow along Virginia state Route 71, the remains of a redbrick home smolder on the hillside overlooking the single-lane road. Several volunteer firemen sit drinking water nearby. It's over 90 degrees out. The sun and heat are punishing, exaggerating the heaviness of their efforts.
None of these men will get a paycheck for risking their health, and possibly their lives. But that's OK; that's not why they do it.
An elderly gentleman stands outside of his vehicle along Route 11 West, the Virginia-Tennessee byway made infamous in the 1958 movie "Thunder Road" about moonshine running. He's not far from a service station. Two young men pull over and offer their help. Minutes later, he is steering and they are pushing. He makes it to the station. They walk back toward their white service van with two sandwiches in hand he bought them at the lunch counter inside the station.
A new waitress at a Chattanooga diner drops her tray full of ribs, macaroni and cheese and wings just as she is about to deliver it to a table filled with family members from out of town. Half of it lands on the father of the family, staining his white shirt and tangling gooey macaroni and cheese in his hair. She is filled with apologies and tears. They handle it with grace. When they leave — after they finally have their dinner — they refuse an offer for complimentary dinner and leave her a generous tip.
None of these are extraordinary moments. In fact, they are really quite ordinary things that happen every day in this country. They are the tiny measures of character, which is best measured in such granular increments. Character is the mosaic of tiny acts, rather than a large, bold mural making an obvious statement.
Speaking at a bill-signing ceremony last week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said: "We're not going to make America great again. It was never that great," a line that caused some of those in attendance to gasp and others, oddly, to cheer before he continued.
It was a line meant to take on his nemesis, President Trump, and Trump's signature "Make America Great Again" slogan. But it keeps with the notion that some in politics truly believe America is not all that great.
Perhaps they don't know what great means.
Or worse yet, what America means.
Great is an aspiration — a higher elevation to which you constantly try to take yourself and your countrymen.
And that greatness resides in our people. It's visible in the volunteer firefighters, the good Samaritans, the compassionate, the people hidden in plain sight who do the right thing not for glory but out of a sense of duty.
America has never been perfect for all people, but it never stops striving to be that place taking on our shortcomings with protests, church meetings, policy changes and societal upheavals. It often takes too long, and it often has setbacks, but at our core, we fundamentally never stop trying.
There is a reason our ancestors immigrated to this country. It was a land that held a promise of opportunity, broad freedoms and unoppressive government. That's the reason people still want to come here.
Cuomo is wrong. Had he said America's never been perfect, he would've been right. But amid our flaws is plenty of greatness. We do great things every day, and we aspire to do more tomorrow.