There’s been something on my mind for a really long time that raises a lot of questions I wish I could figure out the answers to. It doesn’t puzzle me continuously, but it does come up with somewhat regular frequency, usually but not exclusively at high school commencement exercises, baseball games or any other event where some singer, when nearing the end of the National Anthem, insists on going up to that high A flat at “o’er the land of the freee-HEEEE!!!” My questions are: Who told them to do that? Who ever convinced them that was a good thing to do? Why do they think anyone wants to hear them? How can we eradicate this behavior?
I don’t know if there are any answers. I suppose that, at some point in the last 30 years or so (because I sure don’t remember it from my childhood, and hearing that teeth-clenching rendition is something I would remember because it would have provided such scope for mockery), some famous four-octave-voiced singer who could actually reach that note while still sounding sane decided to show off a bit by hitting the A flat. And I suppose that, after such a demonstration, every two-bit singer eager to imitate the professional would naturally want to give it a go. Add in a few tone-deaf relatives to applaud and deceive those singers, and you have established the foundation for ensuing cacophony. Now it is a matter of course at public functions to hear that tympanum-rending rendition.
I bring this up because yesterday was Memorial Day. Late in the morning we went to the local cemetery for a program put on by the local VFW post. There was a lot of flag-waving, partly because there were about 75 flags there. Maybe more. And then there was the singing. Really, if we can’t replace the Anthem with a more rational song like “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”, then there has got to be a change made in the way it’s performed in public. Because it is currently not a beautiful thing.
Some people among my acquaintance think I'm unpatriotic because I'm overly critical of the National Anthem. Some people among my acquaintance think I'm unpatriotic because I don’t get caught up in the flag-waving paroxysms of patriotism that the public goes through on the holidays specifically set aside for such celebrations. Some people among my acquaintance think I'm unpatriotic because I believe men’s neckwear imprinted with the stars and stripes is a bad idea.
I don’t see much difference between a guy putting a flag tie around his neck and a guy putting a flag around his shoulders. Both are irritating, and if the guy doing it is at the Olympics, it's even more irritating. But that’s just me.
But I think I'm patriotic. While we were at the cemetery, watching all the flags waving and listening to bad national anthems, adequate speeches (I judge speeches at these kinds of functions on the “next to of course god america i” scale), and a touching rendition of Taps (played by Ian and echoed by Jeanette, a fellow trumpeter from the high school band), my DVR was very patriotically recording war movies back at home. I had very patriotically set it to record
Of course, I'm not saying you should rely solely on movies to give you your history, but I think it can help. I once read an article (non-fiction, so it’s true, but I can’t remember who wrote it) by a guy (I think he was a teacher) who said he was sitting there in the living room watching some World War II movie on tv. His high-school-aged daughter has her friend over, and while the daughter is doing something or other, the friend wanders into the living room and starts watching the movie. After a minute, she says, “What’s this?”
“A World War Two movie,” says the teacher.
“World War Two?” says the girl, sounding confused.
The teacher, a little surprised, but knowing that some students get historical facts mixed up, says, “You know, when we fought the Japanese and the Germans back in the 1940s.” He goes back to his movie, and the girl watches silently for a few minutes.
“We had a war with
Now you might not believe that anyone can be that ignorant, but I do. I had a friend whose daughter’s 19-year-old boyfriend was surprised to find out that
I didn’t know him. If I had, I would’ve found a heavy book, like an encyclopedia or a world atlas, and chucked it at his head in the hopes that some of the knowledge contained therein would, by momentum, make its way into his brain.
Books, I hope you will agree, are a great way of finding things out. Watching movies can even be useful, although I feel that movies should be a supplement to and not a substitute for books. Either way, though, I don’t understand how anyone who watches tv and movies as much as people do today cannot have at least a basic understanding of our nation’s history.
There is a danger in taking films too literally, though. I’ve heard a couple of people use Shakespeare in Love as proof that Queen Elizabeth attended the Globe Theatre to see Shakespeare’s plays. And there are those who think Sir Walter Raleigh was on board fighting the Spanish Armada because they saw it in Elizabeth: The Golden Age.
I once thought of writing a book about “History According to
So I enjoy World War II films (as long as they have actors in them that I like), and I think they are important for getting some sense of how people back then experienced the war, but I sometimes question what I see. For instance, I was a little skeptical when I first saw Back to Bataan. In that film, John Wayne refuses to surrender to the Japanese with the rest of the Army and becomes a guerrilla fighter instead. Okay, I have no problem with that, because he did the same thing in They Were Expendable, which is based on a true story, so I know that not every American got herded into concentration camps.
He then rescues Anthony Quinn from the Bataan Death March and Anthony Quinn (playing the fictional grandson of a real Filipino hero) joins the guerrillas, too. All right . . . I'm still with them.
What made me look askance was that Beulah Bondi (most people know her as James Stewart’s mother in It’s a Wonderful Life), who portrayed an American school teacher in the Philippines in Back to Bataan, also hooked up with John Wayne’s outfit and lived, marched, and fought with them for the next three-plus years. I wasn’t sure I could believe that. First of all, can you just picture James Stewart’s mother slogging through the jungle with a gun slung over her shoulder?
Secondly, all the accounts I’d heard of before, both factual (I'm thinking of the woman who wrote The Drainpipe Diary, and the ex-Army doctor I knew back in Provo in the 1970s who spent the war with her two little children in a camp near Manila) and fictional (movies like So Proudly We Hail and Cry ‘Havoc’), led me to believe that American and pro-Allies European women and children in the Philippines were pretty uniformly rounded up and sent to camps.
All that changed for me a couple of weeks ago when I read Guerrilla Wife by Louise Reid Spencer. It’s an autobiographical account, pretty well told and extremely interesting, of a group of Americans in the Philippines – some attached to the Army, some (like Spencer’s husband) working for a mining company there, and some serving as missionaries – who all refused to surrender and who instead took their chances living in the jungle, moving around occasionally to avoid capture.
In addition to describing what they went through for two and a half years, the trials they faced and the loneliness, illnesses, and the losses they suffered, Spencer gives due credit to the Filipinos who sympathized with the Americans and helped them survive, even at the risk of their own lives. The book has humor and suspense and some really sad parts, and it opened my eyes. Now, indeed, I can believe in Beulah Bondi as a guerrilla fighter, right up there with John Wayne.
I have a small collection of World War II first-hand-account books, and Guerrilla Wife is a welcome addition.
I also have a collection of World War II movies, and I think it’s a little sad that Guerrilla Wife isn’t one of them. Really, this story would make an excellent film or, even better, a miniseries.
And I also think it’s noteworthy that, in all those patriotic films, regardless of all the flag-waving – and there’s a lot of flag-waving – no one ever screeches the National Anthem. Ever.