When I was seven-, eight-, nine-years old, I was one of the first of what they once called “latchkey kids.” The circumstances of this fact are not important, but every day after school I walked myself home along through the streets of Newark and Bloomfield, let myself into the apartment and spent most of my afternoons occupying myself by listening to horse races in the radio (yes, that was a thing in the 1970’s) and, mostly, by playing imaginary games of baseball or football in the backyard.
Before every game, the national anthem. Yes, really.
The few but regular sporting events my father could afford to take me to were always special events. The bus or car ride to the venue, the popcorn, hot dogs and pretzels at the stand (Dad and I were always big eaters), even the ticket stub that was invariably saved, was part of a cherished ritual, a time of togetherness. To culminate the actual start of whatever event it was, there was one more ritual that galvanized the whole affair and was thus very special for me: the national anthem. Dad would touch me on the arm, and that was the sign, to stand. There was something special about thousands of people pausing whatever they were doing to rise en masse to honor a flag and country with a song. Back then most also remembered that holding one’s hand over ones heart was part and parcel of the experience, as well.
The games themselves were memorable, or they were not. But everything up to and including the anthem was. So much so that, when it came to my own imaginative backyard sporting events, I was sure to convert my indoor blackboard easel to an outdoor stadium scoreboard, complete with American flag draped carefully off the right hand side. I think a real estate agent stuck the thing in our easement on Memorial Day.
Before each afternoon’s sporting event, I brought my sister’s fancy cassette player outside with me, placed my special cassette inside it (I don’t remember when or how I made it), and pressed play. I stood at attention, right hand over my heart, and sang the National Anthem out loud with the tape.
Yes, every day. All by myself.
I loved the whole ritual that was the national anthem.
As I grew, and subsequently realized that I would be mocked (or had I already been mocked?) for playing The Star-Spangled Banner just to throw a baseball against a wall or a football in the air to run under it and catch it, I stopped playing the national anthem when I went to the yard to play.
But I still loved the song and the ritual. I always stopped to listen when it was played on television (which was happening less and less for sporting events. I guessed it didn’t bring good ratings).
When I went to games as a teenager or young adult, it was still a big deal to stand for the anthem. It bothered me a little (not a lot) when people stopped putting their hands over their heart. I guessed that wasn’t cool.
Once, when I was 19, there was an outcry over people burning the flag in protest. The idea of something that was sacred to me (and, I had thought, all Americans) being desecrated appalled me. I recall writing a letter to my congressman (who, in the great spirit of American progress, I believe is still my congressman now), urging him to support legislation that would ensure protection of the flag. At the time, I felt empowered that at least I could do something to show more support for an American ideal. I'm not going to say I was wrong then. I'm not sure I was. I know it disturbed me and I needed to say something about it to someone who had the power that I didn’t.
As a single adult, my friend Rob and I subscribed to season tickets for the New Jersey Devils for several years. We both loved getting there early, buying a King Kone (Rob’s favorite) and Devil Dog (mine), and getting to our seats in time to finish eating and stand for the national anthem.
I noticed as the years went on, American sports fans found that it was incumbent upon them to cheer before the anthem finished, and the cheering started earlier and earlier, sometimes before the singing was even half over. I always wondered why these people bothered standing at all, wondered if they thought about why the National Anthem was still the official beginning to every communal sporting event. In short, it bothered me.
As an avid runner, I still appreciate the ritual of the national anthem, and sometimes the song has a wonderful communal effect: for a minute or two, it unites the various runners who are going to take part in a competition where they are otherwise very much alone. Some of the time, it’s a disappointing affair. Often, runners fail to take off their caps or head-coverings, talk or stretch during the song or ignore the anthem altogether. Sometimes, however, it reminds us about community.
In fact, my favorite recent memory was during a small event in my hometown. The mayor always shows up for this fall 5k and brings an extremely outdated cassette player oddly very much like my sister’s, depresses the button and points the speaker at the microphone for all to hear. It’s low-tech and unimpressive, but it is sincere.
A couple years ago, something went wrong with the cassette player. Its batteries were drained, or it finally gave up the ghost after decades of usage. The mayor looked around at the race officials, helpless. Did anyone have a solution? No. Seconds passed. He opened the battery pack, pressed more buttons. Nothing still. There was going to be no Star-Spangled banner that day. Unless…
I looked to my left at one of my running companions, Tom. We didn’t speak, but somehow we understood. It wasn’t a big deal; we knew the words. So,
we opened our mouths and sang. A few people next to us joined in, then people near them, and soon the whole crowd had joined in to share an a capella version of the anthem. When we finished,
there was no one there who didn’t stand a little taller, didn’t feel a little prouder. It wasn’t a life-changing event, but it was our anthem that day.
It meant something then. It means something still.
The National Anthem and I have a long history together, a wonderful relationship. And while I don’t think any of this qualifies me as an expert of flag decorum or arbiter of what is or isn’t respectful, it does identify me as someone who cares and has considered why I do care. I like to think, still, that I am just one of many thousands, maybe millions (but probably not) of Americans who do have a personal relationship with the flag. So, I really do understand when people are upset about the treatment of the flag and/or our National Anthem. Only I have learned, for me, that it is not what you do when it is played; it’s what you think about.
Someone thoughtfully kneeling with a hand on his heart while the national anthem plays is not a demon or a son-of-a-bitch. To me, the act is a patriotic one. It’s the huge number of people I have encountered through the years who do not remove their hats, do not look at the flag and do continue their conversations while the anthem plays bothers me much more. They disrespect the flag, the anthem and the country by refusing to even pause to think about what any of it might mean. It's not thoughtfulness that should offend us; it’s thoughtlessness.