Life takes interesting turns.
Just a year ago, I had no idea at all that I’d be working full-time at the VA or that I would be writing a blog about my experiences. I had not met many of the very fine people I have had the opportunity to meet through the blog and other social networking outlets.
I certainly did not think about Independence Day in the way that I do now.
As I’ve said in previous posts, I’m not patriotic in the usual sense of the word. I remain very distrustful of the Nation-State as a whole, and while I have no problems with the notion that leaders, whether civilian or military, might be decent people as individuals, I cannot similarly say that they always act decently when they act together “for our benefit.” I simply cannot muster excitement for “The United States” as an abstraction–and therefore as an abstraction symbolized by a flag passing in front of me or a song, ridiculously difficult to sing, no matter what your voice, one only passably accessible for a bass-baritone in the key of A flat.
Yet that same flag, that same song as symbols of concrete realities, of real men and women with real histories, real tragedies, triumphs, hopes, men and women not proud of aggression, but not ashamed of it either, men and women who leave behind “Just In Case” letters for spouses, children, parents, just in case, facing at the ages of eighteen, twenty-five, thirty-five, even forty-five the reality that each of us hopes will remain existential for the foreseeable future, thank you, the reality, however, that they can no longer afford to hand a number and then tell it to take a seat and wait its turn along with graduation gifts, wedding cakes, baby blankets, and anniversaries silver and golden?
As some of you who have been following the blog may remember, on Memorial Day–on Decoration Day–I placed a flag at the grave of the father of one of my patients, the grave of a man of a different era who did believe in an abstraction, but who also lived out the actual ideals of that abstraction in his concrete life, no matter how imperfectly, no matter how simply. Today I think of names–Danny, TJ, Mike–and I imagine flag-draped coffins, nothing abstract whatsoever, folded, delivered, held.
Today I also remember my son playing his oboe, standing out on a football field (yes, I know, oboes and football fields don’t jive, but trust me), having memorized the song indeed in A flat, glad that the flutes will double him in case he misses a note or two in the parts when the brass take a rest. I remember standing in a corner of the grandstands, just a few people around me, mainly band parents (it was a junior varsity game, after all), as the de rigeur drum roll began, three beats and then come in on four.
And I remember thinking of Danny, TJ, and Mike, the fallen comrades–no, soulmates–of three of the men I’m privileged still to listen to, to serve.
The musical progression is well known, thanks, in no small part, to basketball and rising flags at Olympic Games: E flat, C, A flat–a low note for many people, yet quite comfortable in my range–a dotted eighth note, sixteenth note, quarter note, all followed then right up by the major chord, do, mi, sol, do.
What I cannot remember is the last time before this one that I had sung the National Anthem.
You must understand: I am a better-than-average singer. I’ve done my time in the choruses of Turandot and Tales of Hoffman for our Indianapolis Opera Company. If I sing just at half voice in your average crowd, I’m noticeable.
While I did not sing full voice (it wasn’t about me, after all), I didn’t whisper. I couldn’t. I had just remembered Danny, TJ, and Mike.
At that point the politics just didn’t matter to me, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, George Bush, Barak Obama, Robert McNamara, Donald Rumsfeld, Henry Kissinger, Hillary Clinton, none of them.
I was not unaware of the song’s militarism. I was not unaware of the suffering of the Iraqi and Afghan people.
And I was aware of six young men, three dead, three alive, three of whom never saw their twenty-fifth birthdays, three of whom have yet even to reach their thirtieth.
All I have to do is keep the back of my throat open and imagine the sound rising to the top of my head, and I can take that E flat at the end of the land of the free, more with a short i sound than a long e one, and hold it out four counts, no need to push the volume, just fill the head with air and relax. It’s that simple.
And the home of the brave.
Yes, each of those six men were. Three still are.
The standard applause and semi-whooping done, I started to walk down the steps toward my son’s pick-up point. As I passed, the woman just to my left, two rows down, looked right at me.
“Wow,” she said. “And you knew all the words and everything.”
We live in a complex world, filled with children who die unnecessarily, no matter where the nation, men and women who grieve a life partner, whether only of a few months or of many, many years, men and women barely out of adolescence–or long, long past it–who grieve a guy from Dubuque, a woman from Tallahassee.
I can only plant a flag for a kind, often sad father.
And sing. As well as I can. For Danny. For TJ. For Mike.