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'American Spirit' now from abroad - Tom Purcell

I know a fellow from Lebanon who is more American than most Americans.

In 1977, when I was 14, I rode my bike, played ball with my friends and enjoyed a safe and happy American existence.

During that same year at the same age, the Lebanese fellow, I now know, was dragging dead bodies into the street and setting them on fire.

As civil war raged in his country -- as Beirut was bombed every night -- many dead bodies lay in the streets. The stench was so great, he and his neighbors dragged the bodies into a pile and burned them.

He was a Catholic with five siblings and two parents. For three years, his family lived in a bombed-out apartment. They were finally forced to flee.

At the airport, they were stripped of their money and belongings. They settled in Cyprus for a few years, working odd jobs to make money.

Eventually, his family got permission to come to America and settled in Washington, D.C.

Though his father had had two successful retail businesses before the war, the family had to start at the bottom in America.

The fellow and his younger siblings had no time to finish high school or think about college.

He took a job in a shop. His siblings worked in a restaurant. They gave all their earnings to their father. After three years, their father had saved $20,000 -- enough for the family to start a business.

The family saw an opportunity to open a bakery that specialized in Middle Eastern fare. For seven grueling years, the fellow and his siblings worked round-the-clock, sleeping on flour sacks and putting all profits back into the business.

In 1993, the business began to see a profit and the family finally began to enjoy the fruits of its labor. But then the business lost two big accounts in the same year.

The family hunkered down again and worked round-the-clock to save the business.

Today, some 30 years after the family fled war-torn Lebanon, the business is solid and the family is prospering. The business employs nearly 100 people, many of them earning good salaries.

The story of this fellow from Lebanon has got me thinking.

As a boy, I was taught that freedom, opportunity and hard work -- not government largess -- were the keys to a better life in America.

I believed that fierce individualism and entrepreneurial drive were the primary reasons for my country's incredible growth and success.

Yet, in 2011, so many native-born Americans no longer see it that way.

USA Today reports that more than 18 percent of the income Americans enjoy is coming not from labor but from government programs -- Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, unemployment benefits, etc.

While some of that spending surely benefits the needy, or retired people who paid into Social Security, some of it clearly does not.

Many college kids appear "poor" on paper. They're now receiving food stamps in record numbers -- one reason our food stamp costs are twice what they were in 2008.

Despite our country's massive, unsustainable deficits, many people want no cuts in the government dough they receive.

Which makes me wonder: Whatever happened to the American spirit?

While so many suburban-bred Americans are happy to take from others, many legal immigrants ask for nothing but the opportunity to work.

Sure, some quickly figure out how to cash in on government generosity, but most cook our food, clean our clothes and fix our cars without complaint.

Like the fellow I know from Lebanon, many are more American than most of us.

Tom Purcell, a freelance writer, is also a humor columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and is nationally syndicated exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate. E-mail Tom at Purcell@caglecartoons.com.