By Tom Demerly.
It is beautiful here. Just breathtakingly beautiful. Symmetrically rolling, high hills wear layers of green trees. Between them brilliant, sparkling rivers flow. Majestic bridges cross them, and on them drive trucks and cars. There are farms and churches in the valleys. And this is one of the most beautiful places in all of America.
This happened very recently, and I cannot tell you where I am, but this story is entirely true.
It’s race day. A long adventure race that will take competitors in canoes, on mountain bikes and on foot over challenging terrain for 30-hours non-stop. It’s a tough one, double the length of an Ironman triathlon. To make it tougher, athletes carry all their gear on their backs and have to navigate the course using map and compass.
At the start athletes line up on top of a green grassy rise that slopes down to a crystal river shimmering in the early morning sunrise. Conditions are perfect. People are ready to go, canoes lining the river.
Not many spectators here. Just a few family and race volunteers who followed the athlete buses out to the course. Until today, the location of the start remained secret.
A race volunteer fumbles with the portable P.A. system and an iPod, trying to que up the National Anthem as athletes fidget with bulging anticipation to just get this race going. The scratchy speakers thump and hum, but no anthem. The darn thing isn’t working.
One voice, booming with authority, in the center of the line of athletes and toward the back, where a team leader would position himself to oversee his team and steer the canoe, that one voice rises up.
“Ohh, say can you see…?”
And all other voices are joined in by the end of the next line.
“Through the dawn’s early light, what so proudly we hailed, at the twilight’s last gleaming?”
Nearly every person in the race, every team, every member, every volunteer joins in the singing of our National Anthem. Some don’t exactly know the words, they may be young and never learned them, or they may be my age and it’s been a long time since 5th grade, but they fumble through it the way they heard it at a baseball game or on TV or at their kid’s hockey tournament. It sounds pretty good, and it unites the people who, for the next thirty hours will do battle with rough terrain and long distances all the way to the finish.
But the man who started this triumphant chorus will never see that finish line. He will die on the course a few hours from now of natural causes. He was a father, husband, son, Army Ranger, combat veteran and fine man. The people who were with him just before a serious heart problem took him said his last remarks were something like, “It is just so beautiful out here.”
And it was.
One man rose the chorus of our national anthem that race morning. He understood the meaning of that anthem. He knew that to deny our anthem, or our flag, is to deny the things we hold dearest: freedom of speech, liberty, courage. The man who began singing the anthem protected the protester, preserved freedom of speech and expression, risked his life in battle for those ideals and educated himself about the depth and value of their meaning.
He knew what our anthem truly means. It was the last song he ever sang.
I can still clearly hear that last line;
“For the land of the free! And the home… of the… brave!”
Our National Anthem unites us in the principles we hold dearest, it does not divide us along the gritty arguments that punctuate democracy. We argue and protest and disagree and debate because of the ideals celebrated in our anthem.
So, if you are a dissenter, a protester, a contrarian, then sing your anthem louder still. The country it celebrates guarantees your right to voice your opinion. The bombs bursting in air did so to protect your opinion and liberate your will. They will undoubtedly do so again as history’s tragic precedent teaches us.
To not sing our anthem is to cower and live in shadow and ignorance. It is not understanding what those verses stand for. Not standing or singing during the National Anthem is not a protest, it is a misunderstanding of the significance of that song that espouses our basic principles of liberty and free speech.
Not standing does not celebrate our freedom to protest. It only acknowledges our growing vulnerability to ignorance.