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HUCKABY: American Dream losing connection to hard work

So there I was Friday morning, sitting at the kitchen table, drinking my morning coffee, wishing I had a newspaper to read, watching "Good Morning America," George Stephanopoulos — I wonder what grade he was in when he learned to spell his last name — was interviewing the guy who won the Powerball lottery Thursday night.

You couldn't help but be happy for the guy. He was a convenience store clerk from a small town in Missouri. He had $28.96 in his bank account and he collected a check for a cool $258 million — before taxes. When they asked him the inevitable question "What's the first thing you are going to buy? — he said that he was going to pay his light bill and his gas bill and maybe put a new engine in his pickup.

I don't know how far this guy got in school, but I don't think he really understands the concept of how many dollars 258 million really are. And if I were him, I think I would invest in a little dental work because he was a couple of front teeth short of a full set.

I'm just saying.

But then the guy went on to say, "I'm not going to change. People who were my friends before will still be my friends. I'm going to be the same person. I'm just a regular guy, living paycheck to paycheck. That will change but nothing else will."

And then I am pretty sure I heard one of the "Good Morning America" people say, "There you have it. The American Dream."

And I couldn't help but wonder, "Really?"

Is that really the American dream? To win the lottery? Has it come to that?

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying I wouldn't enjoy winning $258 million. If I did, I would pay off my debts as far as it would go, but I honestly don't believe that easy wealth is the real dream of most Americans. But if that's not, what is?

When the first shiploads of English colonists began arriving on the Virginia shores back in the 17th century, they hoped to find gold nuggets lying around on the ground. Well that didn't happen, but adventurers kept coming to these shores and they eventually began bringing their wives and children with them.

At that point, the American Dream became owning enough land to scratch out a living — and to be left alone.

A thousand miles to the north, Englishmen began landing around the Massachusetts Bay with a similar dream, but with an added addendum — the freedom to worship as they pleased.

Over the decades — and then the centuries — the American Dream evolved. The vision of land to work evolved into a small house and a steady job. Toward the end of the 19th century when people like Andrew Carnegie used hard work, ingenuity and a certain degree of entrepreneurial ruthlessness to go from rags to riches, accumulating great sums of wealth through hard work and thrift became the American Dream.

And on and on and on.

For many of my parents' generation, a steady job, a roof over their heads, three squares a day with an occasional steak on Saturday night was about as much as they could hope for. Throw in five days at Jacksonville Beach in the summer and a weekend in the Great Smoky Mountains in the fall and life was good.

But like every generation before them, they wanted more for their children than they had themselves. The key to advancement, they believed, was hard work, of course, and education. When my friends and I arrived at school we arrived there with an understanding that we were going to behave ourselves and try to learn what it was that the teachers had to share with us.

The common thread that ran through all of these versions of the "American Dream" was that the onus for achieving that dream was on the individual. Those first Jamestown settlers didn't expect anyone to bring them gold nuggets — they were going to gather them for themselves. The early farmers didn't expect anyone else to hoe their gardens and gather their crops.

The would-be industrialists of the Gilded Age didn't ask for a handout, but only to be left alone to pursue their goals — and I can guarantee you, my parents and their friends didn't expect something for nothing. An honest day's work for an honest day's pay was their mantra — and if their kids didn't achieve at school they didn't blame the teachers, you can bet your bottom dollar in that.

Somewhere along the line we have, apparently, changed. More and more people seem to be walking around with their hands out. More and more people seem to expect something for nothing. More and more people seem to think that the world owes them a living and that they are entitled to share in the wealth that others have accumulated through hard work and determination; that they should share in the rewards without taking the risks.

And the saddest thing of all is that we have elected a government that seems to agree with those people — to such a degree that some people think that winning the lottery is the American Dream.

If that's really the case, I fear that the American Dream has become the National Nightmare.

Darrell Huckaby is an author and teacher in Rockdale County. E-mail him at dhuck08@bellsouth.net.