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Of thee I sing
One of my more memorable gen-ed classes in college was a Non-Western Music class. It was not especially memorable for the content (though I vaguely remember enjoying the tours we took through various Asian, African, and South American soundscapes, guided by a rather effete but energetic prof). I chiefly remember it for one particular class day, when we had a perky female guest lecturer come and speak about the National Anthem. She didn’t have a thesis, exactly—more of a discussion prompt. The question she wanted us to explore as a class was whether we should retain our traditional anthem or change it to a Native American tune. This would have been going on ten years ago now. I’ve since thought back to how relatively genial her presentation was, despite the obvious silliness of the prompt. She was clearly progressive, but not hostile. I’ve sometimes wondered whether she would feel free to push her preferred thesis harder today.
In any case, at the time I found myself unexpectedly taken with some emotion as I began making the case for the regular old anthem. I had always been a patriotic child, and I could feel all my latent red-white-and-blue instincts rising up. I sounded very earnest, which helped to hide the fact that I was rather annoyed. (Perhaps I should note that I don’t intend this as a comment on westward expansion or Native American mistreatment, whose documented reality I’m not disputing. I simply found the prompt historically absurd.) I’ve long forgotten exactly what I said, but I recall saying something about how when I thought of the anthem, I thought of the sacrifices of the American military. Though I don’t think I put it so articulately at the time, I was trying to get at how all of these things—the anthem, the sacrifices of patriots, the flag—couldn’t be disentangled from each other in the essence of the American identity.
The lecturer seemed genuinely appreciative. Towards the end of the session, she unexpectedly invited the class to sing the anthem—the actual anthem. Everyone else was a bit caught off guard and shy, so I tentatively started to sing solo. When I finished, they clapped, which pleased but embarrassed me a bit since I hadn’t intended to give a performance. I finished the class well and put it behind me. It was several years later when I bumped into a fellow student around campus. He reminded me we’d taken the course together, then said, “I still remember when you sang the National Anthem. That was awesome!” I was touched. Someone remembered.
There’s been a recent clip circulating of a 100-year-old veteran named Carl Dekel, decked out in his dress blues for the camera, breaking down in tears over how this country isn’t what it was. He’s in an upbeat mood for much of the interview, reminiscing gently over footage of himself pottering about in a golf cart and singing “Happy Birthday to me!” with family and friends. He proudly displays his Silver Star: “It says ‘GALLANTRY IN ACTION.’ So that’s real nice.” He can say confidently that he’s lived a good life, full of happiness and beauty. “I sincerely believe in this old world that everything is beautiful,” he says with feeling. “I mean if I see…if I wake up in the morning and see these plants out here and all those flowers in there, and the green grass on the ground, that’s beautiful. And people don’t realize what they have. They bitch about it.”
This is when he begins to break down: “Nowadays, I am so upset that the things we did, and the things we fought for, and the boys that died for it, it’s all going down the drain. Our country’s going to hell in a handbasket.” Through tears, he laments that future American kids won’t have the “fun” or the “opportunity” he had. “It’s just not the same. That’s not what our boys… That’s not what they died for. It’s just not it.” A young woman who seems like family comes forward to comfort him. Chagrined, he apologizes and assures her, “I’ll be alright. Just takes me time…to get over it.” He looks at her and trails off brokenly, repeating himself, “Emily, it’s just…just not…it’s just not the same. That isn’t what we fought for.” Then he sighs, “Oh well. I shouldn’t be worried about it, I guess. I’m 100 years old they say.”
The clip has mostly circulated around clickbait sites fastening onto the sadness of Carl’s lament. And it is deeply sad. We could all supply examples of how America is choosing to send itself to hell. For me, the various authoritarian crackdowns and mandates around the pandemic marked an especially dark and unsettling moment, when I struggled to recognize even the America I’d come to love in my own short life. It’s in moments like these that the patriot must truly search his soul and ask himself what it means to love a nation. I think of the words from a tune I do confess to preferring over the anthem, “America the Beautiful”:
God mend thine every flaw
Confirm thy soul in self-control
Thy liberty in law.
This is what it is to love a country: To lament over her wounds, including self-inflicted wounds. Without love, there is no lament.
But even as love laments, love also hopes. Even as Carl weeps, he also smiles, because this country is still beautiful. He still loves her rocks and rills, her woods and templed hills. By the end of the clip, the cloud has passed, and he is once more reminding us all to “just remember everything’s beautiful.”
This Independence Day, like Carl, I can still be grateful for many things. Chief among them, that we’ve finally woken up from the deadly fifty-year slumber in which we pretended our Constitution contained an inalienable right to abortion. I can be grateful that here, at least, the bare minimum of justice has finally prevailed. I suspect this is an encouraging thought for Carl as well. Hopefully someone has reminded him of it.
Last year, I wrote about my dear old neighbor who was a veteran of World War II. At eleven, I had the energy and foresight to record an interview with him in three parts. He was in his mid-80s then, growing fragile but still very sharp and able to give a richly detailed recollection of his time on the European front. “I was a good soldier,” he recalled, even though “now you see an old man.”
I was probably thinking of Jim, among others, when I made my case to the perky lecturer. Today, I will think of Carl. And, thinking of his gently repeated injunctions to remember America’s beauty, I will post a blind man’s version of the song that immortalized it: