From Chicken Soup for the Soul of America

Of Thee We Sing

“Hey, Jennifer!” someone hissed. “Get up!”

Looking up from my doll, I saw that other kids on the playground had dropped what they were doing and froze. Quickly, I rose to full height, clapped my right hand over my heart, and froze like the others, straining to hear the high-pitched trumpet signal the end of the day. Somewhere on our base the United States flag was being lowered, folded with solemn precision, then carried away in a clipped march.

When the last note trailed off, I tried rubbing the goose bumps off my forearms. What little I could hear of the melancholy horn had an effect on me.

Such was a small part of the life of an army brat.

At Saturday matinees, I savored the luxury of a candy bar and soda while waiting for the curtains to swish open. As soon as the screen was revealed, all of us army brats rustled to our feet, palms flat against hearts, and in respectful silence watched a series of patriotic scenes flash across the screen, timed to the rhythm of our national anthem. The last scene of our nation’s flag rippling in slow motion burned in my mind as the anthem closed with a rousing flourish.

When I was sixteen, I sat in an off-base public movie theater for the first time. When the lights dimmed, I watched the curtains with anticipation as they parted, then stood up, hand over heart.

“What are you doing, Jenn?” my date asked, yanking on my shirt sleeve.

Scanning the darkness, I saw that I was standing alone—and blocking someone’s view. Public theaters, I discovered, did not cater to the national anthem.

“Uh . . . I need to go to the bathroom,” I mumbled, before escaping to the lobby to nurse my chagrin.

Years later, I married a patriotic man, an Eagle Scout whose tender handling of our flag on Independence Day always brought tears to my eyes. He’s never served in any branch of the military, much less been raised in a military family. But scouting ingrained a love of our country in him, and every morning in his school’s homeroom he pledged allegiance to the flag.

Living outside the city limits granted us license to shoot off fireworks every Fourth of July. Two years ago, we injected a new family tradition to enhance the celebration. After the last rocket flared, my husband and I broke out singing: “O, say can you see by the dawn’s early light. . . .” We sang to our kids who sat open-mouthed in lawn chairs. We sang to the star-stitched sky, to wildlife, to neighbors within hearing distance. We sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,” high notes and all. We figured by the time our four kids were old enough to appreciate the words, we would have six times the joy of singing those wonderful words at the tail end of our street.

This summer, our oldest will know how to count all fifty stars on our flag. Before he even dons a scouting uniform, he will be well-versed in the etiquette of handling our nation’s flag—like making sure it never touches the ground and that the sun never sets on it.

Not long ago, I was on post late when I happened to glance at some soldiers standing stock-still, their gaze locked onto the horizon. Out of habit born of pride, I stood with my hand over my heart as faint notes spirited me back to my roots.

There they were again.

Goose bumps.

I shivered, knowing it was more than just the song that filled my heart.

It was my country. Sweet land of liberty. Of thee we sing.

Jennifer Oliver

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