By Burt Siemens
Way long ago, we neighborhood kids argued over whether we had to stand if we hear “The Star Spangled Banner” on the radio, even when alone in our room. I think we resolved the issue with what teachers in those days called fisticuffs.
Time and again it seems we must re-examine the protocols for respecting our symbols of patriotism. We must decide again what’s noxious, what’s merely obnoxious and what’s innocuous.
In first grade back in 1940, our day began with the Pledge of Allegiance. At the time, we believed the pledge could not take hold unless we said it with our right arm extended, palm upward, at about a 45 degree angle from our body.
One day we were told, “never mind” – a hand over the heart would suffice. Someone thought the traditional flag salute looked too much like the kind of salute popping up all over Germany at the time. What had been innocuous was now noxious.
Many were upset when Jimi Hendrix strummed his singular version of “The Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock. Older people thought it sounded like two cats and a rat tied up in a paper bag. To the young, though, it sounded like sweet music.
Proper flag veneration has once again become an issue. As everyone knows, some NFL players have knelt during the national anthem to protest racial injustice. Some folks see sedition, some see freedom of speech. So now we must decide whether taking a knee is more stoop than genuflect.
I have always stood for the anthem, mostly at baseball games. I get up on my feet because it never occurs to me not to. It’s what one does, like the seventh-inning stretch. Except, there you can keep your hat on. And only the most devout guardian of baseball tradition regards you with scorn because you remain sitting.
If the Olympic Games are on, my TV is on. When I hear “The Star Spangled Banner” and see the flag rise in honor of American gold I naturally feel a twinge of patriotic pride.
Sometimes I feel like standing, even when watching alone. But I never do.
Not long ago, the delicacy of anthem protocol came up in a most unexpected setting. It was the commencement exercise for grandson Henry’s pre-K class. Doting grandparents, we of course were there.
In the program we saw he was slated to open the ceremony with the national anthem. That he was so selected came as a total surprise to us – though we knew he could do it.
As all Sabres fans know, home games begin with the Canadian national anthem followed by the American. Henry’s parents are avid fans. He has attended some games and seen more on TV. So he has heard both anthems many times. And all the time he had been memorizing the words – to each.
One day he sang both to his delightfully surprised family just as he had heard them. So we knew he was up to the honor.
But which anthem would he sing? Would “O, Canada” come out of his mouth just as the American colors were being presented?
We fidgeted through introductory remarks and housekeeping announcements. Then Henry strolled out.
He took the stage. He scanned the audience, spotted his mom and dad and waved to them. He smiled at the crowd and stepped up to the mike. We held our breath. He took a deep one. Then in his boyish voice came, “O, say can you see …”
Never has “The Star Spangled Banner” sounded sweeter.