To the Editor:
A friend of mine, Eric Metaxas, is an author, and a brilliant one. His latest book is called, If You Can Keep It, The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty (Viking). He spoke recently at a gathering in New York about the new book and what had prompted him to write it. I have felt so many of the things he spoke about for a long time, but have not known what to do with those feelings. Lately I have felt pessimistic for the future of the country and have felt powerless to do much. Eric’s talk and the book, which I have just finished, have given me hope.
I am not sure when it happened, but I have fallen in love with America. I know that September 11, 2001 had a huge impact on me, as it did on so many others. A life of security and prosperity and freedom we had all taken for granted as kids and as young adults seemed suddenly fragile that day and in the days that followed. I began to imagine losing it, and that made me love it all the more.
But as I look back, my deep affection for the country had been growing for several years before that day. I have been struck, again and again, by the sacrifices made by so many to preserve this nation. We visited France the year after Saving Private Ryan had been in theaters and spent an afternoon at the American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy, overlooking Omaha Beach. When they played “God Bless America” on the carillon while we were walking, in a gentle rain, among the countless rows of white tombstones, I wept for all of those lives cut short in the cause of liberating Europe, on D-Day and in the days that followed.
Every year since our kids were toddlers, we have gone to the Wilton Memorial Day Parade. Sometimes our kids marched as Girl Scouts or with a Little League team. Of course that was fun for them and for us. But with each passing year, the sight of the veterans marching in that Parade, many of them still survivors from World War II, would give me a bigger lump in my throat, and I found that I could not clap and cheer loudly enough to express my gratitude. Even on the hottest days, we would always march ourselves up the hill outside of town after the parade to the cemetery for the service to honor the dead, and hear the invited speaker for the day tell stories of being at war. Some high school kid would sing “God Bless America” and “Taps” would be played, and a twenty-one gun salute would be fired. It was always pretty much the same, but I never wanted to miss it. I explained to the kids each year why it was so important to remember those who died for people they would never meet. They died because they loved their country, and they died for us. This year the weather forecast was for rain on Memorial Day, and the parade was cancelled. And the rain never came. I spent the day with a deep sadness and sense of loss at not being able to remember and give thanks with neighbors and friends.
Thinking about the sacrifices so many have made, especially all of those who have made the supreme sacrifice of their very lives, I have often wondered what I am doing and what I can do to serve my country and to encourage others to love and to serve it, too.
I teach general music at a Roman Catholic school in Ridgefield. It is not the sort of job where most people would expect to find a hero, although teaching middle school kids can sometimes require a level of patience and self-control that come close to being heroic. I am thankful that I have a great deal of freedom in crafting my curriculum and in what I teach my students.
Around Veterans Day and Memorial Day we take time to talk about those who served and died. We do a Veteran’s Day assembly each year and invite several veterans to speak about their experiences, and we sing patriotic songs together. We talk about what the word ‘patriotic’ means. I talk to the older kids in class about Irving Berlin, a Russian immigrant who loved this country and wrote “God Bless America.” I talk to them about George M. Cohan, who was unabashedly patriotic (even though his real birthday was July 3rd and not 4th), and whose songs, “Over There” and “You’re A Grand Old Flag” stirred the troops in World War I and earned him a Congressional Medal Of Honor for his contribution to the war effort. And I teach them Mr. Cohan’s songs.
When we are studying the music of the Civil War, I have my students try to imagine what it would be like to be a mother or father saying goodbye to a son as young as nine or ten, going off to be a drummer boy, maybe never to come home again. I read accounts of military bands marching out into the middle of the field of battle to play stirring songs to encourage their regiments when the troops were tiring and their courage seemed to be flagging. And we sing “The Battle Cry of Freedom” and “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” and “Goober Peas,” for a little comic relief.
I have read parts of Ronald Reagan’s speech, “The Boys of Point Du Hoc” in front of middle school kids and choked back tears when I get to the part where he asks, “Why? Why did you do it? What impelled you to put aside the instinct for self-preservation and risk your lives to take these cliffs?” He answers the question by saying, “You all knew that some things are worth dying for. One’s country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it’s the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man. All of you loved liberty.”
It may be a small audience I am speaking to and pouring my life into these days. But after reading Eric’s book, I am encouraged and determined to be even bolder in expressing my own love for my country and in trying to foster in the next generation that same kind of gratitude and love and commitment to serving this precious place called America. I am so grateful that Eric Metaxas has written If You Can Keep It. I wish every American would read it. This has been a strange and unsettling political year, and our nation faces sobering problems and challenges here at home and abroad. The flame of freedom may seem to be flickering, but it still burns.
We truly are an exceptional country. America was meant to be and still can be a shining city on a hill, beckoning others to come and enjoy the blessings of liberty. The republic the founders have given us is a great, great gift. May we all cherish and keep it well.
God Bless America.