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A Patriotic Journey

A Patriotic Journey

    My patriotism is more reflexive than expressive.  I rarely decorate my jacket lapel with anything and certainly not a small replica of the Stars and Stripes.  When the postal worker at the counter asks me which first class stamps I want, I just shrug by way of saying to him, "Your choice."  I sing the "Star Spangled Banner" heartily everywhere, but mostly because I like to sing heartily.  I feel a twinge of nostalgia when repeating the Pledge of Allegiance; but I'm never quite sure if the feeling has more to do with a fond remembrance of Hart Elementary School (where we said the Pledge every morning) or with the wonderful ideals on my tongue.  I've never served in the military and am not, therefore, eligible for any veteran's organization.  I do vote at every opportunity.  And I even served on a jury in a civil court in Nassau County. 

    In other words, I cannot imagine myself as anything but American, red, white, and blue, through and through.  I just don't wear my patriotism on my sleeve... or lapel.

    That being said, I report on a patriotic journey the week after Easter. 

    It started in Baltimore.  We were visiting our second daughter and her family.  Her husband, Brian, treated us to a visit to his new office overlooking the harbor, and I mean overlooking the Inner Harbor, where the renaissance of Baltimore began. Brian gave us a tour of the waterfront neighborhoods in his convertible, with the top down.  I mentioned that I had always wanted to visit Fort McHenry, the inspiration for Francis Scott Key's War of 1812 poem.  Quicker than you could say, "Left turn," we were there, at the ramparts and the National Shrine where the British naval might was defied through a night of bombs bursting in air and rockets red glare.

    I had always thought that Key was in the fort during the bombardment, but a fifteen minute movie corrected that misunderstanding.  Key was on a small truce ship in the harbor watching the British men-of-war blast away at the fort on a peninsula jutting into the harbor.  What he was doing there is further information I leave for you to discover on your next visit to the Inner Harbor.

    When the movie ended, the curtain darkening the room was pulled back from a very large window.  We were asked to stand and sing.  "The Star Spangled Banner," of course.  As we looked through the window we saw the flag.  It had thirteen stripes all right, but there were only fourteen stars, just what Francis Scott Key saw that triumphant morning by the dawn's early light.

    My eyes moistened.  My heart skipped a beat. 

    Two days later we drove to Washington D. C. to show the grandson twins the memorials.  The heat of the day was more August than April, 90 degrees, even hotter, more like a hundred, in the cafeteria of the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum.  We walked and walked.  My knees were tested and were not found wanting. 

    The wait for the trip to the top of the Washington Monument was three hours.  So we passed it up.  The obelisk, I can report, is alabaster gleaming, but the grounds around it are torn up, for what purpose we can only guess, probably for a security grid.

What I most wanted to visit again was the Lincoln Monument.  I had forgotten how many stairs one has to climb to get to the inside.  The place was crowded.  Some workmen were replacing concrete slabs in the Second Inaugural alcove.  I shepherded Robert and Henry to that corner of the space and pontificated: "That's the finest speech any president has ever made, and it's also one of the most insightful theological statements of the 19th Century."  The boys, of course, didn't have a clue as to what I meant in the second part of my statement.  But, I daresay, there were very few pulpits in 1864 which could see with such clarity and generosity of spirit the terrible (and unnecessary) bloodshed of that great civil conflict. Lincoln rose above his moment and the swirling tempers of North and South.

    We detoured on our way to the car to visit the Vietnam War Memorial.  Henry twin bought a deck of cards from a Vietnam Vet's booth.  The deck featured the enemies in the latest American conflict in Iraq, with the pictures of the most-wanted in the Baathist establishment.  I went to the stand with the book listing the casualties of the Southeast Asian war.  I was looking for a particular name.  The register said I would find it at 16W 77.  I walked down the line of onyx slabs etched with names of the men and women who died in Vietnam.  I found slab 16W.  I traced down to the 77th line.  There it was, the name I was looking for.  I ran my finger over it: kenneth s. dee.  His family belonged to the church I served in Brooklyn.  Kenny had stepped on a land mine.  Mom and Dad, Bi and Al Dee, were heartbroken. I shared the funeral service with a Catholic priest.  Months before leaving for Southeast Asia, Kenny had been married to his bride in St. Michael's Church on Fourth Avenue.  Thousands upon thousands of those in the military died in that war; but Kenny is the one who made it so very personal for me.  I touched the engraved name, said a silent prayer for him, and made my way to the car.

    I took no picture of Kenny's memorial inscription.  The next time I will.



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