Monday, July 2, 2012

‘O say can you see?’

Photo by Smithsonian Institution
We Americans are deeply attached to our star spangled flag. We fly it over homes, cemeteries, places of business, stadiums, airports, racetracks, battleships, everywhere. Here and all over the world where American people have lived and died, you’ll see the stars and stripes. It’s our unique signature.

We’ve planted it on Iwo Jima, the North Pole, Mount Everest, even the moon. Our flag is everywhere. We wear caps, pins, tee shirts, we tattoo it on our bodies, we paint it on our face, we decorate cakes with its image and wrap murals on our 18-wheelers.

I myself, have got a real deep thing about my flag … have had ever since I was about 12.

Early this morning, I was looking out my window at the American flag that we hung off the eave of my front porch for the Fourth of July. It was barely daylight and the first rays of the sun were just about to hit my house.

The flag, which had been still in the semi-darkness, suddenly fluttered in the breeze.

It instantly took me back to something that happened when I was in the sixth grade and my teacher told us a story that simply smacked me upside the head. I’ve never looked at the American flag – or heard the national anthem – in the same way.

Previous to her story, I was like a lot of kids. I didn’t know much about our flag except that it had a star for every state. I knew how to hold my hand over my heart and recite the pledge. We did it in school every day. But it was pretty much just words, no more than a dry recitation. I knew every word to the national anthem but the meaning of those words was pretty much lost on a kid.

Fortunately for me, my sixth-grade teacher’s style of teaching included being a superb storyteller.

She told us about this guy who was a lawyer who lived during the War of 1812 when our country went head on against the British. The war wasn’t going well and Washington was in shambles. The lawyer was supposed negotiate for the release of a prisoner so he boarded a British ship in Baltimore harbor. While aboard this ship, he overheard the Brits planning to attack the city of Baltimore the next day. He ended up in the middle of a major battle, one that turned out to be key to winning the war.

The city was being defended by the garrison at Fort McHenry. Because the lawyer had heard the battle plans, the British took him prisoner until after the battle was over.

When my teacher described the how fierce the battle was, us kids were getting pretty interested. She talked about the rockets pounding Fort McHenry all day and night. Historians say the British naval fleet unleashed more than 100 tons of shells, bombs and rockets on the fort – one every minute. My teacher described the lawyer, stuck on the British ship, not knowing if the city would fall or not. She described him, pacing, anxious, his eyes peeled on the dark shoreline. By that time, Mrs. Patrick had the full attention of the class.

She was passionate when she explained to us that this was a little known battle, but nonetheless, it came down to our scrappy little Navy fighting off on the war ships of the British Empire.

Through the dark and the smoke and bombshells, the lawyer could hear but couldn’t see much. He couldn’t know if the city or ultimately, the nation, was safe.

Then, in the early morning light, there it was – a giant red, white and blue flag flying high over the fort. The commander of the garrison had ordered it hoisted so everyone would know they had held off the invaders.

That lawyer was Francis Scott Key and he wrote some emotional verses about that battle on the back of a letter he was writing. It was later put to music and of course, has become our national anthem.

I remember that story and how my teacher told it, as if it were yesterday and every kid in my class had a lump in their throat at the end. To us, suddenly, the words to that “Star Spangled Banner” all made sense.

I never hear that song without experiencing that same feeling.

And the flag that flew that morning over Fort McHenry? We STILL have it. The commander of the post kept it for years and passed it on down to his family members. It is now in possession of the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. It’s one of our most sacred national treasures.

It hung in the entry hall in the Smithsonian until 1999. It’s now been repaired and preserved and currently the proud focal point of a brand new exhibit. How fitting is that for the bicentennial anniversary of the War of 1812?

I wish Francis Scott Key could know that 200 years after he scribbled down those verses, we still have that old flag. And that yes, the star spangled banner does still wave … well, you know the rest of the words.