The year is 1966. I am a first-grader at the H.B. Milnes School in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. Every morning, my classmates and I stand beside our little desks, hands over little hearts, and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Our teacher then bangs out the chords to one of a dozen patriotic songs we know by heart. My personal favorites: “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean.” Though a few youngsters mangle some of the lyrics, there’s no doubt that one tenet has already been deeply inculcated: America — and the flag that stands in the corner of every classroom — is to be respected and cherished, for we are the greatest and freest nation in the world.
As a kid, I embraced this fully. It had to be true since my teacher said so, as did my parents and President Johnson. For not only was the United States strong, it was generous. If another country’s citizens were hungry, we sent food. If they were attacked, we sent help. America wasn’t just a superpower, it was a superhero. In my six-year-old mind, my country’s motives were absolutely pure, and I was supremely proud that America was the “helper” nation and everyone around the globe loved us.
Nearly 50 years later, I contemplate both the beauty and naiveté of that notion. I now know too much to hang onto my vision of a strictly benevolent USA. It pains me that our status has changed so dramatically and, lately, there are days when I’m not proud of my country’s actions at all. But still, I wouldn’t want to live or raise my children anywhere else. Despite my ambivalence about many of our foreign and domestic policies, I remain a patriot and an unabashed flag waver.
My love of the Stars and Stripes bloomed early.Despite my ambivalence about many of our foreign and domestic policies, I remain a patriot and an unabashed flag waver.
As a Brownie scout, I waved my little flag with a solemn smile as I marched in our small town’s Memorial Day parade. With each flick of my wrist, I strove to telegraph my love of country to the spectators lining the route. From their lawn chairs, they waved their flags in return as if to say, “Me, too!” The deep boom-boom of the high school band’s bass drum made my tummy vibrate as I left-right-left-ed, underscoring the sense of exhilaration and significance that pervaded the day. At that moment, I had no doubt that America was special, my town was special, and I was lucky to be a part of it.
My fascination with the flag continued at summer camp where I reveled in the daily dose of pomp and circumstance that accompanied the raising and lowering of the flag. As a tinny recording of a bugle call played over the loudspeaker, a couple hundred girls stood at attention in a circle around the flagpole. Each morning, one lucky pair of campers had the honor of hooking the flag to its pulley and hoisting it to its windy peak. At dusk, a second pair lowered the flag and folded it carefully in triangles. This was serious stuff, and, despite my burgeoning disrespect for authority, I liked it that way. To this day, I tear up whenever I hear “Taps.” At camp, it signaled the end of the day. In war, the end of a life. In both domains, its plaintiveness has always sounded uniquely American to my ears.
I recently asked my sons, ages 22 and 24, if they know the Pledge of Allegiance. They made a couple of valiant attempts at reciting it, but it quickly became clear that beyond the first line, they were lost. I doubt this scenario is unique to my household or my city (New York). Perhaps it’s different in the heartland — I hope so. But in my corner of the country, in the span of one generation, what had been a daily ritual for millions of school children has been lost. As for those patriotic songs, the only one my kids know is The Star Spangled Banner, and that’s only because of its ubiquity at professional sporting events. I suspect they’re not alone in that regard as well.
This seems a shame. For despite our citizens’ wide range of ethnicities and religions and economic strata, those songs and the Pledge bind us and remind us that we share our American-ness. Of course, we don’t need to recite a few poetic lines or belt out a march to know where we’re from or where we’ve settled. But I miss the ritual and the sense of community that pledging together elicits. I think my descendants are missing out, too, whether they know it or not.
On Flag Day, I sat in my backyard with my sons talking about freedom. When I asked what it meant to them, they spoke about freedom of choice and of speech. They understand that to do and say whatever you choose (within the law) is our right, yes, but also our privilege. We talked about living in a country ruled by democracy rather than a dictator. I asked if they felt lucky to be Americans. They do. And like their mother, they love the flag and a good parade.
Next weekend, no matter what, they’re learning the Pledge of Allegiance.