I have a love-hate relationship with patriotism. In my twenties, I sat for the National Anthem, and this caused my father, a Korean War veteran, much dismay, so I eventually relented out of respect for him. Since the various Black Lives Matter movements have made protest an issue again, I have occasionally sat for the anthem at sporting events. But I am also a school teacher, so each week when we have services at our Jewish school and sing the Jewish and American national anthems, I dutifully chant with everyone else. I must be a role model.
I sometimes feel that since America’s racist history is so entrenched, I have to do something to protest the inequality and hate. I used to add, “except for black and Native Americans” at the end of the Pledge because I believed America had not realized her dream of “liberty and justice for all.”
However, every four years when the Summer Olympics brighten the airwaves, I root for the USA with the passion of a European soccer fan. I feel proud to cheer for athletes who have toiled to realize their dreams, even if some opted to use performance enhancing substances.
My 6th grade homeroom teacher, Mrs. Westcott, gray-haired and nearing retirement, always made us sing-a-long to patriotic songs each morning. The words spooled by on a film strip synchronized to a record. I can still hear the beep that moved Mrs. Westcott to advance the strip.
In my mid-20s, I worked as a lowly clerk at the Connecticut State Legislature in Hartford, CT. Part of my job duties, besides getting coffee for the Speaker of the House of the Connecticut State Representatives, included helping the Clerks of the House monitor activities during the legislative sessions. Each session began with the Pledge, and as this was during my no Pledge days, I never put my hand on my heart.
One day an aide to the Speaker, Vito Mazza, a squat, bullish man, with cropped frizzy hair approached me with fire in his eyes. “Why don’t you say the Pledge?” Mazza was rumored to have been an Iranian CIA operative who’d helped our government overthrow the Democratically elected government of Iran in the early 1950s.
“I don’t have to answer that question,” I said.
“Are you a Communist?” he asked.
“I don’t have to answer that question,” I repeated.
He jabbed his finger in my face. “Are you a Communist?”
When I refused to answer him for the third time, he stormed out of the chamber. I later learned he’d screamed at my immediate supervisor, an alcoholic secretary who was in charge of all the legislative publications, and demanded I be fired and escorted immediately from the building.
The Clerks of the House, easy-going lawyers with strong political affinities for community service, negotiated a compromise. I was to wait several minutes while the Pledge was recited before entering the chamber in the morning.
Several weeks later at the closing party, when alcohol flowed as freely as water, one of the Democratic reps, always adorned in a bowtie and known for being conservative, approached me. “I really admire what you did over the Pledge. It was about free speech.”
I don’t think of my time at the legislature very much, but this 4th of July, as the meat is grilling and the fireworks are exploding and many of us are wondering what the hell has happened to our country, I will remember that we have to continually fight for freedom.