I turned 18 on May 31, 2001, two weeks after graduating from high school, two months before beginning college and somewhere near the midpoint between George W. Bush's first inauguration and the attacks on the World Trade Center. Less than a month after Sept. 11, I stood beside my father in the grandstand of Lowe's Motor Speedway as Lee Greenwood sang "God Bless the U.S.A." to a capacity crowd. People placed their hands over their hearts and dutifully sang along to those familiar verses.
When the song was over, after several planes had flown overhead, an announcer informed the crowd that the American invasion of Afghanistan had begun. The voltage of vindication and patriotism converged, charging the crowd, igniting an eruption of red-blooded whoops and cattle calls. The roar broke the autumn afternoon stillness before the 42 cars on pit road even had their chance. There was no room for dissent in Charlotte. In fact, living with a president I hadn't been able to vote against in a nation that had suddenly decided to sell its future downriver for its own cocksure pride, I felt there wasn't much room for hope.
But I'd hardly considered this until sometime just before midnight Monday as I peeled away from the crowd pouring out of a Barack Obama speech at the Dean E. Smith Center. About half a mile from the arena, I walked past a girl in jeans and a navy blue Obama T-shirt. She carried a bag of plain Ruffles potato chips and a telling expression in her face and in her brisk, confident walk: She was a college freshman if I've ever seen or been one, convinced after her evening with Obama, Sam Perkins and a score of senatorial hopefuls that—at the hands of a young, black senator from Illinois who spoke candidly about his unfamiliar "Muslim name," his passive nature and his challenging upbringing—America had finally found its way. "There's so much we can do," he kept saying. How different that must have felt for her than the anger I saw at 18.
I don't have great expectations for the next presidential term, whether Obama, Hillary Clinton or John McCain takes the White House. As the shit that's been spread deep over American soil is less good fertilizer than it is a mandate for so much shoveling, there's work to be done. Any exit from the Middle East, partial or otherwise, will be slow and painful. The economy won't be a sudden springtime daydream. Our nation's many ethical quandaries, from grassroots racism to superficial nationalism, won't vaporize on Jan. 20, 2009. Flowers don't bloom without the right conditions.
But I do have great hope for the support promised by the 18,000 faces that smiled so wildly and cheered so loudly Monday night. Standing on a platform, watching Obama deliver his speech in an appropriately blue tie and with an appealingly level confidence, I could feel that NASCAR ghost from seven years ago start to lift. That day, I had seen pupils of pride and vengeance. Monday night, I simply saw exasperation yielding like a ghost to hope. Here's to that welcome return, the chance for change and the promise of trying again.