Publishers Note: This series was originally written in 2015 and is being reposted in 2020 for its pertinence to current issues.
“Sure I wave the American flag. Do you know a better flag to wave?” – John Wayne
One of my summer traditions is going to a baseball game with my dad. I have vivid recollections of homeruns, strikeouts, and comebacks, of eating hot dogs and peanuts, of conversations about anything and everything between a father and son. That tradition is, for me, a little slice of Americana.
Before every one of these baseball games, we pause to “honor America” with the singing or playing of the national anthem. It’s a ceremony that at times feels forced and insignificant, and that, truth be told, has always struck me as a little odd. Why do we put on a display of patriotism before a sporting event? After all, it’s not an international competition like the Olympics. The U.S.A. isn’t battling the dreaded Soviets of old or the kindhearted (yet still rival) Canadians. The hometown Brewers are playing Houston, San Diego, or New York. And yet, right up there with memories of dramatic baseball moments, ballpark foods, and time with my pops, are images of those national anthems:
My eyes are dutifully drawn to flag in the outfield as it flutters gracefully in the warm, evening breeze. Mid-song, they drift a little farther to the POW/MIA flag that hangs from the rafters, reminding me of the price that was paid and is still being paid to preserve my freedom to hang out at the ballpark on a Tuesday night in May or June. Fireworks symbolize “bombs bursting in air”—bombs that couldn’t keep “that star-spangled banner” from flying over Fort McHenry, a sight that prompted Francis Scott Key to pen the eponymous song. I think of my grandfather, who served in the European theater of World War II, then of my cousin and my friends who have served and are still serving in various branches of our armed forces. And before I know it, that sometimes compulsory national anthem makes the baseball game about to be played seem commonplace. At the same time, it adds to its value. Because it’s not just a baseball game. It’s a celebration of a way of life, of the freedoms we alternately cherish and take for granted here in America.
I didn’t always feel this strongly. I used to look at our flag as a piece of cloth. I used to find the national anthem a hassle, self-conscious of how my hair would look once I removed my cap. I don’t know that I was unpatriotic as much as a little apathetic, taking too much for granted. I was still proud of Grandpa for his service, still looked up to and respected the men and women in our military, and was still grateful to be an American. But something was missing. And something has changed.
I can’t say exactly what. Maybe I just matured a little bit. I’ve seen how quickly the rights we presuppose can be taken away from us. I’ve gained a greater understanding of the realities and complexities of the world. I’ve seen how the principles on which this country was founded have come under attack, and I’ve seen glimpses—here and abroad—of what a country without those principles looks like. In short, I’ve discovered—and in some cases re-discovered—why America is such a great nation. I’ve come to appreciate more and more the blessings of living in America. And I’ve now felt compelled to compile a series of essays on why I feel the way I do about America, and why she is worthy of that love.
I don’t mean to create a rift along political lines. I don’t want to take shots at other countries. I don’t intend to gloss over America’s mistakes and failures. There are plenty, as the American people are full of faults and warts, messing up and getting in trouble again and again. But when our president spends more time apologizing for America than lauding her, when lawmakers and judges stray further and further from the Constitution, when the world is filled with disdain for America, I feel obliged to rise to her defense, to brush the dust of negativity off her shoulders, to boast about my girl in front of my buddies a little bit.
You see, I’m tired of people denigrating my country. Our ancestors died and were buried in European graves to free that continent from Hitler’s tyrannical grip, yet many in Europe look down their noses at us. American blood and treasure was spilt in the sands of the Middle East, rescuing Kuwait, protecting the Saudis, and freeing the Iraqi people, yet we’re hated and cursed at by thousands—millions—in that region. Even here at home, so many people rip American standards that provide them the right to do exactly that. I’ve had enough. America isn’t perfect. Far from it. But it is time that we refuse to listen quietly to false assertions, mischaracterizations, and unwarranted hate. It is time that we harken back to the birth of this great nation and cherish the rights and freedoms bequeathed to us. It is time that we fully embrace our freedom, capitalize on our opportunity, and rejoice in our achievements. It is time that we live by and share the values that have made us who we are.
So that is why I am writing this series of essays. I want to rekindle the flame of passion that should burn deeply within all of us. Perhaps America has lost a little luster in your eyes. I want to restore it. Perhaps antagonism toward America has taken you over. I want to replace it. Perhaps your heart already bursts with love for America. I want to enhance it. My hope is that I can accurately convey not just this depth of feeling but the reasons behind it, so that you, like me, will be able to define these United States of America as the “land that I love.”
“I like to see a man proud of the place in which he lives. I like to see a man live so that his place will be proud of him.” – President Abraham Lincoln
Nathan Birr is the author of more than a dozen full-length novels and several short stories. When not writing, he enjoys painting, watching football (or any sport), traveling, and spending time with his family. He lives in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, with his wife, Sierra.
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