I am sitting in a movie theater in Bulawayo, Rhodesia*. It is 1958. I am a student at Eveline Girls High School in Bulawayo, and along with other boarding students, we are waiting for the movie to begin. I have no recollection whatever of which movie it was. But certainly it was made in Hollywood and was therefore an American movie. As movies did years ago, this one began with several short films—maybe news reels. I don’t recall. But what I do most vividly recall is that when the opening credits of the feature film were about to roll, the screen suddenly filled with a flag of the United States of America, in lovely vivid color. As it waved in the breeze, I felt my whole being swell with pride. Here was the flag of MY country. The image was accompanied by the strains of the national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner.
I suspect I was alone in my patriotic fervor. I was no doubt the only American girl in the group. Most of the other students attending the boarding school were Rhodesian girls—white, in those days of apartheid—daughters of farmers and businessmen in the country. While there were other American girls attending Eveline—daughters of missionaries, as I was—I lived in the house closest to the actual school buildings, a consequence of my having had rheumatic fever which meant I was not meant to be subjected to too much physical strain, such as walking a distance to classes. And when it came to movie going outings, we went by house**.
Fast forward several decades, and I am sitting in a football stadium attending a Penn State football game. As does every athletic event in the U.S.A., this one began with the band striking up the opening strains of the Star Spangled Banner and the entire crowd joining in. Except me. I found it hard to sing joyfully the words I knew by heart, and happily sang in the movie theater in Bulawayo.
When my parents, brother, sister and I returned to the U.S. in 1960, the United States was as shining an example of democracy as one could imagine. We had helped win World War II, we had saved Europe and perhaps western civilization. We embodied the Yank can-do spirit. Give us a problem, and we could solve it, fix it, rescue it, save it.
Sure, we had divisions—some more painful and vivid than others. Blacks in America were living under continued white domination, even though slavery and the Civil War had ended. But blacks also migrated north in astonishing numbers and helped drive the great explosion of American manufacturing.
Political parties existed, but Republicans and Democrats tolerated each other, and even worked together. Where politics took on a very sharp turn was when Senator McCarthy began spotting “Communists” under every stone. The McCarthy hearings devolved into some of the worst political persecution the United States had seen in its history.
And then came a decade of unraveling. Like many Americans, I was entranced with the bright new president John Kennedy. His assassination, while not the first of a sitting president, seems so much like turning out a light and plunging the nation into a kind of darkness. Other political assassinations followed in stunningly swift succession — Malcolm X; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Robert Francis Kennedy.
The unraveling was also evidenced by the U.S. becoming mired in a winless war in Vietnam. This is my generation’s war. Like any war, it took too many young lives. Classmates, friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, sons, brothers, fathers. We mourned deeply, as we do today, Memorial Day.
News trickled out of the horrific wholesale slaughter of villagers in Vietnam. We heard names like My Lai—places we never knew existed much less had an idea what they looked like. We only knew that the U.S. had lost its innocence. We weren’t the good guys anymore. The flag of the United States no longer symbolized something heroic.
There were other ways we lost our innocence. We learned how many countries had leaders overthrown by the CIA, in our name. Chile, Iran, Guatemala, Congo, Brazil, Dominican Republic, and even South Vietnam—ironically, President Kennedy authorized the assassination of President Diem in August, 1963.
What amazes and heartens me is that even with all this—the ways in which political leaders have deceived and failed us—we still have young men and women who are motivated by patriotism. Who see beyond the cynicism and respond to the call of duty. Young men and women who firmly believe that they can make the world a better place.
So on this day, Memorial Day, I say thank you to Larry and to Jay (friends who died in Vietnam), to all the young men and women who lost their lives in Vietnam, in Lebanon, in Kosovo, in Bosnia, in Iraq, in Afghanistan.
I love my country—I love the potential for which it stands. I love the good it has accomplished in the world. And I love that it continues to beckon people all around the world to come here. Yes, I will sing the Star Spangled Banner again—I just wish the “rocket's red glare and bombs bursting in air” was a less frequent occurrence. Along with the national anthem. I would love to sing heartily the words of some of our other unofficial national anthems—"God Bless America," "This Land is Your Land," and "My Country, 'Tis of Thee."
Childe Hassam's painting Flags, Fifth Avenue
*In 1980, Rhodesia was renamed Zimbabwe.
** Think Harry Potter, where students are sorted into different houses, both for lodging and for academic competition.