Every once and a while, somebody remembers and reminds, brings up something that should be obvious but seems to often go over the heads of too many people. Sometimes it is simply the speed read of check fact and what gets reviewed to the audience is a bit more ragged around the edges than Cronkite might have allowed. Fair enough. But, in the midst of moments great and true, when all the world's a stage and the players upon it are under a spotlight more volcanic and temper-laden (as opposed to Tempur-Pedic or temperature fevered) than might have been but a decade or two ago, there should be some effort made to make certain the signals and messages are not mixed with or like the drinks from the night before.
Bottom line - there are some times when we mistakenly think lyrics say something other than what they do (and it creates humor) but then there are times when we realize people just don't listen to what is being said and what can one do but shake their head.
It was fifth grade at Stark School in Stamford Connecticut and we were at an assembly. It was a fine auditorium, home to Winter Concert and Spring Concert. Mr. Joyner with the handbell ensemble, Mr. Cantor with the band, Mr. Troutman with the choir (sopranos and altos only please as while there was some facial hair on a few students, nobody had yet dared to go so low as to call up the baritones). And oh goodness the name of the strings director escapes now, fleeting off to those cauterized and desiccated neurons in the brain that haven't been kindled in nearly twenty-five years. My apologies all around, and maybe by the way and chance and means of these things somebody will read this and shine a fifty watt upon this forgotten assignment.
We were not in the auditorium for any of these instances, for any of those would have found these feet on the stage and in the third row, fourth from the right, first trombone, blowing a low c-f-g for anybody in need. Yet, what we were in the hallowed-hall-of-burgundy-curtain for...the years have lost track. Might it have been a good citizenship assembly? Remember those, when certificates with the biggest gold stars you had ever seen were signed by the principal and handed out on the principle of...something resounding between good grades, and perfect attendance, and helping pound the erasers, and being kind to the lunch ladies, and generally being decent to the other twenty-three or so classmates who were all wiggling and rustling and tussling with the impending growth to middle school? Maybe it wasn't a good citizenship assembly and the memory only captures it that way because it would be more fitting. Does one wonder why those stopped being handed out once elementary school was but a legend?
So, we're in that assembly now and the principal is dressed in his usual beige and striped tie, so official. Although thinking on it now there's a blank space where his name, too, ought to be stored. As if somebody has made for a selective reduction of the memory banks that got put into the deeper storage long ago - when the gnomes of the mind rolled the paper-bound permanent records into the cobwebbed recesses (as opposed to the kickball recess). Consider it like that last scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark...so as to make space for the upgrades that fill the frontal lobe-halls of the mind - now computerized, apparently and supposedly efficient, with the capacity to sort and intake at the speed that modernity likes to flood with information. For if one can't harken the bilge pumps fast enough in this age, the amount of sewage that spills toward is enough to drown in. But the principal with his principles comes out and welcomes everybody and is asking us to settle in and then once he explains whatever it is that we're there for, asks, without further ado that we all to rise to recite (little did he expect what it would incite) the Pledge of Allegiance.
And as the student body rises as a six-hundred-headed snake, a groan is let out from a good portion of the lungs. A groan that is, without a doubt, a bunch of students exclaiming "Awwwwwwwww whhhhyyyyyyyyy?"
Within seconds, probably as the sound was still ruffling and raging (if one could look back on the non-existent security cameras - for we were still years off from that kind of distemper in the physical education courts) a teacher came flying out from the backstage area, and with an exclamation that one did not realize teachers could produce much less express, something was etched into the portions of memory that do not erase until dust becomes us:
"How dare you! How DARE you!!! My brother went to Vietnam and was shot and killed. He DIED defending your right to sit here and go to school and learn and be free. When you're asked to stand up to say the Pledge of Allegiance..."
From there the screaming and laying us to shamed waste descended into sobs as she stormed off the stage.
In this day and age, one imagines she would have been fired. Yet, thankfully, back in the 1980s one could still speak their mind without getting tossed out onto the street. Truly, it was one of the most refreshing things that ever came to these neurons in all the years of school either before or after...even if it didn't make complete sense at the time. The understanding, fully, took years. The reverberation, thankfully, still continues. The word, of course, is decorum.
For those ten year old fifth grade ears, music, well *radio* music, was still new and shiny and exciting and pop was still pop and alternative still hadn't really found its way into the mainstream and the mainstream wasn't whatever it became and country was still old and not new and...and it wasn't until the next year when Caldor found the bottom of these izod-striped pockets and received payment for the first two, of what would become a bedroom strewn with cassettes - Mr. Roboto by Styx and Live After Death by Iron Maiden - both albums that were brought to the aural attention through friends who lived in our apartment building.
Come sixth grade however, the horizons expanded a little bit more as one of the teachers had a framed poster of that iconic buttocks and flag hanging on the wall. The one that seemed to define the 80s - red baseball cap folded into the pocket. Remember back then? Listen to the radio long enough *back then* and by "long enough" there's a jest as one couldn't go an hour without hearing one of the seemingly endless singles that came off that album. But mostly, it was the iconic song with the anthemic refrain that was heard when seated in the backseat of ma mere's Chevy Cavalier. And it seemed like something people sang along to whole-heartedly. And it seemed like something that got people excited. And it seemed like something that made people proud.
It was *that* song.
This topic comes to ground every time the song comes on the radio these days, or especially most recently when it was heard one night at the recent carnival here in town. The mind says, "Really? REALLY? You're playing this song at something celebratory? This song does not mean what you think it means."
So when the US Men's Olympic Basketball Team won the gold medal last week and the world watched as they celebrated, did anybody else find it odd that they were celebrating to the blaring and wailing chords of Born in the USA?
Who celebrates to...?
"Born down in a dead man town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that's been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up"
"Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man said son if it was up to me
Went down to see my v.a. man
He said son, don't you understand
I had a brother at Khe Sahn
Fighting off the Viet Cong
They're still there, he's all gone"
The song is not an anthem.
Of course it was Ms. Whitman, our sixth grade teacher, fan of The Boss, who had run out onto the stage that day and given us a piece of passionate exaltation, the likes of which few of us had ever known. At the time it was difficult to understand exactly why the album meant so much to her, yet years later, when the liner notes crossed over a desk (no Google to quickly give us access to the lyrics of every song ever was and will be), that it all became clear. The realization struck that it was really *THAT* song.
At the assembly, it seemed like something merely patriotic - respect the soldiers who died, love the county, honor the flag. Yet, it was and is more than just that.
But of course it would be a schoolteacher who would have read the lyrics and understood the inherent protest at the heart of the song.
What she really taught all of us that day is that one can be both *railing against* as well as *supportive of* because they are not mutually exclusive. One can be both accusing and still willing to defend. When did the world become so dichotomous? When did the world become so either/or? When did we allow the media to control us and tell us we're either black or white? Pro-life or pro-choice? Republican or Democrat? For or against? Duality is the easiest form of iconography to sell because there's no manner to reduce you to a label if you hold beliefs that fall all over the spectrum and actually begin to hold out for a true revolution of ideas rather than just a rebellion swimming against what is the current status quo.
To be duality, to identify as one side of a coin is to state to the world that conflict is at the core of your being - for there is either with you or against you. How can any country survive under the weight of such inherent in-fighting?
How can any species? Let's be daring then, and take this one step further. Old standardized tests. New modified testimonials. Newer experimental tests.
Consider this a begging and pleading to cease this dualistic approach to...well...everything. Consider looking at things in threes. Think of it as a *three theory*. To task - Take two bright orange construction cones (you know the ones - psychedelic witches buried in asphalt) and place them in a field. Stand between those two cones. Face one cone. When you do, you have no vision at all of the other cone. Then, step ten paces out from where you stand. Place a third cone. Turn around and look back at where you once stood...rather than having but one point or another in your eyes, you have an entire field of vision - both beginning points...and all of the beautiful grass in-between.
This is beyond whether or not a song is appropriate for an occasion. Whether or not the ears are willing to go past the bombast and see that the rally in sheep's clothing is not really a protest at all - as that word instantly makes life about the duality again. There is what is, and here's the rallying cry against, and we as audience, or concerned passers-by, or extraordinary citizens are herded, by the almighty media, to pick a side and stick with it (that latter point a debate for another time).
For what freedom do we really have when we align with one side or the other come hell or hurricane waters?
Meaning may fall within the mind of the beholden, but there is still a point and purpose that stems from the intention of the artist and if we infuse and incorporate our lives with messages that don't fit our heart, how would we feel? Maybe a better question is this - how do we feel?
As Bill Watterson said in Calvin & Hobbes, through the mouth of Calvin..."I pledge allegiance to Queen Fragg and her mighty state of hysteria."
P.S. It is about 4:25 into this video when the music and the celebration mix in absurdity...
If you've read this far, you must think, feel, wonder, posit...something....about what you have just read. Even if it is but a greeting, leave a note at the bottom, to mark tangible trace that you were here. The internet does not have to remain so impersonal.
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