I remember it like it was yesterday.

By the time I was 16, I rarely babysat, but gears shifted on the day I got my driver’s license. Like me, my neighbor’s kid loved roller-coasters; unlike me, my neighbor had no desire to drive all the way from Berkeley to Santa Clara. One nice summer day in the late 1980s, me and her 10-year-old kid and the kid’s friend woke up early, jumped in my neighbor’s mini-van, and drove an hour to beat the crowds at Great America.

Perhaps I should have been clued in by the name. I had been to Great America many times before, but never as the person in charge, and maybe never in the hour before it opened. Prior to opening, they let you past the gate, past the magisterial double-decker carousel, to a courtyard where you’re roped off from all of the good rides. We were as close as we could be to The Demon, their fastest coaster.

We waited in line for what felt like 30 minutes (our fault for getting there so early). We stood near one of those living-room-carpet-sized, two-foot-high concrete planter things that you see in places like Great America. Finally, employees appeared and put their hands on the rope, causing me and my two young charges to think that we were getting into the main park. But no. First, we had to hear The Star-Spangled Banner barely coming out of the loudspeaker. I was like, UGH. I wanted to ride The Demon! I sat down on the concrete planter while the kids held our place in line.

For the record, I’m not sure anyone in the line removed their hat or put their hand on their heart. Well, maybe some. It wasn’t a thing; you almost couldn’t hear the song.

When it was over, a Great America employee undid the rope, and let everyone in. Well…almost everyone.

“Excuse me, you, stop,” he said to me, almost putting his hand on my chest.

We were rarin’ to go. “We want to go on the rides!” I said.

“I know you do, now stop.”

I was about to be a high school senior (I skipped third grade) who had never been in any kind of trouble, I mean ever. I was a nerd and a half. I had never shoplifted, almost never lied. I had never had a beer, never mind anything harder.

Nothing felt harder in that moment than watching everyone walk past us to get right on the day’s first ride of The Demon.

“What did you think you were doing, there?”

“Doing what where?”

I really, truly, had trouble understanding him, which did not please him. Reader, I did not know what he meant.

“During the national anthem.”

Ohhhhhhh. “I…don’t know.” Every person running past us was a new stab of agony. And this person was clearly going to keep us here until they ALL went past.

“You sat.”

“I guess I did.” Obviously I wasn’t making any kind of conscious protest, unlike the quarterback who would do something similar in the same city almost three decades later.

“Why?”

“No reason. I didn’t think about it.” I really didn’t. I had been to dozens of Oakland A’s games by then. I probably stood for the national anthem at many of them, not that any voice then said Please stand for our national anthem. Certainly none of my Berkeley Unified School District teachers ever told us to stand for The Star-Spangled Banner, probably because none of the schools ever played it. If it hadn’t been for watching sports on TV and at the Oakland Coliseum, I would barely have known what the song was. (This was before Whitney Houston’s 1991 broke the sound barrier with her rendition.)

The usher replied, “So maybe you should think about that.” My two babysat kids looked at me with shame and dismay. We got up early to get the best seat on the rides. It was all being thrown away because I sat for the national anthem.

Well, at least that’s how it felt. After every other guest ran past us, he let us go. And the line for The Demon was only a minute long (a minute more than it should have been!). And for our first hour at the park, we…enjoyed short queues. First world problems, you got me.

Nowadays, I probably know a lot more than that Great America usher does about The Star-Spangled Banner. I know all the obscure verses, I know the drinking song that Francis Scott Key used for the tune, and I know that while Key was writing the song at Fort McHenry he was being held prisoner by some of the same British soldiers, under General Robert Ross, who had just burned down the White House. (It wasn’t called the White House, of course, until after its post-burning paint job.) I know that people have tried to replace the anthem with America the Beautiful, without success.

I didn’t learn all that stuff because of that usher. I learned it because I deeply loved America before, during, and after I met him.

I did learn a lesson that day at Great America, although I’m not sure it was the intended one. What I learned is that some people who don’t have much power in the world want to use the little they have to exercise it over other people. Life isn’t fair, and they’re not going to make it fairer for anyone but them. Life isn’t do unto others. Life is a zero-sum game where you do it to others before others get the chance to do it to you. It’s a middle-management attitude at best.

And okay…it’s hard for me not to compare such people to President Trump’s most diehard supporters. That’s a stereotype that most of them, while on Twitter, do very little to dispel.

I question anyone who uses the national anthem as a rhetorical bludgeon, anyone who says that their reverence for that song proves their patriotism over someone else’s patriotism. It’s a song. Big deal.

Many, many of us space out a little bit during the anthem. I will sign the deed to my house over to you if you can produce a video of a stadium full of people listening to the anthem that does not include a few people sitting down. (Don’t blame the disabled, people.) It’s really not a big deal — or it shouldn’t be.

I’ve criticized the 45th President for many things, but until now, I’ve never said a word about the above photo. Until now, I’ve never said anything about Melania Trump nudging her husband to be more respectful. I’ve never said anything because such comments should be beneath us.

As Trump proves with his own behavior, the anthem is a highly fungible symbol. So is the flag, as this thread conclusively proves. Just as clearly, Confederate-flag supporters have no business using the stars and stripes as a patriotism test.

The anthem and the flag are not integral to our military or first responders or government — in other words, they’re not integral to America unless we want them to be.

What if some athlete started a protest, or even a counter-protest, by salutingduring the national anthem? What if that athlete said they were doing it to support White Power? I’ll tell you how I’d feel: go right ahead.

What if an athlete came onto the field/court wearing a T-shirt that said “Abortion is murder” or “Hands off my guns”? What if one of them changed the words to “the land of the free and the home of no taxes”? I’d say, you go girl. Because I defend free speech, even when I don’t agree with it.

In the old days, players didn’t even come on the field for the national anthem. The current practice of standing only hardened into convention in the last few decades. And it’s still not a written convention. That’s why you haven’t seen any Trumpistas post a photo of the section of the rulebook (right after the infield-fly rule, before the football-inflation-diameter rule) that says Players Must Stand With One Hand on Heart During the Anthem.

If you really think everyone needs to stand with a hand on a heart during the anthem, play the Star-Spangled Banner at your (non-pro-sports) workplace tomorrow. Take videos of everyone who doesn’t stand. Take those videos to Human Resources and try to get those people fired. Let us know how that went, in excruciating detail. I’m honestly looking forward.

Sure, it’s true that Colin Kaepernick broke ground when he first took a knee to protest police brutality and systemic racism. That means to some haters, this feels like moving the goalposts again, kind of like removing Confederate statues. I see the haters as exhibiting sour grapes that they didn’t think of it first. Or perhaps they’re like my old usher friend, who can only think of maintaining and exercising the tiny amount of power they still have.

We can do better. When we protest injustice, everyone benefits. We can allsupport the sort of patriotism that involves improving all our lives. Together, we can Make Great America American Again.

 

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