Why you should care
Because freedom is a little more than a word.
In 1971 there had already been run-ins.
“What did you learn in school today?” my mother asked as we sat down to dinner.
“About Lincoln and slavery.” I proceeded to repeat what I had heard. Mrs. Kumar had said that Lincoln was a prisoner of conscience and ended slavery for humanitarian reasons. My mother disagreed. The next day she sent me to school with a history book and index cards with text citations. In class I disagreed. Mrs. Kumar asked to see the book. She returned it without comment. We moved on.
But it was the zeitgeist, and questioning consensus reality was what freedom likely required. From Martin Luther King Jr. to Gloria Steinem, strides were being made to advance the dialogue in an attempt to answer a very simple query: Why? Sure, a cursory pic of the photographic record at the time would show you some cute kids with signs about pollution, or ending the war in Vietnam. I was a sign-making kid, even if I don’t have memories of doing much with those signs other than making them.
I was a reader, though: magazines, newspapers, books. Watched it all unfold. In an environment that demanded it.
Just a year earlier, we had driven through Cobble Hill, then a mostly Irish and Italian section of Brooklyn, after a meal out. A store alarm was screaming, and I saw two teenagers running down the street.
“I bet they broke into that store,” I opined from the backseat.
“You don’t know that.” And a discussion ensued: circumstantial evidence versus those who were victims of circumstance in much more serious ways. Like I said, it was in the air.
A guy behind me started grousing, “Look at this guy — he ain’t even standing,” to which I responded, “You going to make me stand?”
So it didn’t seem unusual to me to be making decisions based on, well, pushing it. I was at a school assembly at the local synagogue, which is where we put on plays and held school ceremonies, and they had started playing the national anthem. I had been saying the Pledge of Allegiance in school forever. Singing “America the Beautiful.” But today, this day? Nah.
“Come on, Eugene. Stand up.”
“I said stand up.” Mrs. Kumar was tall and thin, wore glasses and had been educated in British schools. So this “Nah” thing? She wasn’t inclined to take it.
“I don’t want to.”
“Why not?” She seemed genuinely surprised. I remember being surprised that she was surprised.
“I’m expressing myself. Politically.”
“Politically? How? And why?”
“Well, my people have had a hard time in this country and celebrating seems wrong.”
“The song is not about celebrating.”
“Then what’s it about?”
“Look” — the patience had worn thin — “stand up! Or get out.”
My classmates looked at me like I was crazy. They stood. Then I stood — and walked out into the hall, where I sat down on the marble stairs while my classmates sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.” I didn’t feel upset. I felt like you’re supposed to feel when you do a good thing. Which is to say I felt good.
When the song was over, Mrs. Kumar came to get me. “Go find your seat.” She didn’t look at me.
That night at dinner I went over what had happened. The reception was not especially positive.
“Well, Gene,” my mother started, “it was probably OK to stand, you know?”
“Why should I have?”
“Well, everything doesn’t have to be a fight.”
“This wasn’t a fight. I didn’t feel like it. And Mrs. Kumar started screaming at me. Who cares whether I sit or stand?”
“Sometimes you just have to get … along, I think,” my stepfather said.
Which is all I needed to hear really. I never stood for the national anthem again. I didn’t make a big deal about it; I just didn’t stand.
As I got older, and bigger, it was less of a problem. Outside of a professional wrestling match at the Cow Palace, a guy behind me started grousing, “Look at this guy — he ain’t even standing,” to which I responded, “You going to make me stand?” There were no problems.
Then I was a father and there were more school events and athletic events. And still, I didn’t stand. My kids, nervous about deviations from the norm, used to urge me to stand. “You stand,” I’d tell them. One day they asked me why I didn’t stand, and with a birth promise I made to never bullshit my kids, I said, “The best way for me to exercise the principles that this country was built on is to protest in small ways if I can’t do it in larger ways.”
“But what are you protesting, Dad?”
“This country’s refusal to treat people decently: women, Brown people, Black people, Asian people, poor white people, even those people who gave everything for this country, our vets. My friend Tom used to work at the VA and he said what goes on with our returning veterans is criminal!” I rambled on, but they had stopped listening. I mean they were kids.
Then something happened. I was at one of my kids’ wrestling matches. Some old wrestler — about 65, grizzled and bent — hobbled up to the stage. He opened his mouth and sang like an angel. Oh, and Obama had just become our president. These things may have been causally connected. But in a sudden rush I saw the whole messy tapestry for what it was: us in all of our shambolic excess just trying to make it to the end of the song in one piece, and maybe beyond.
My kids briefly registered that I was standing but couldn’t say anything as I had bolted out of the stands to find the singer. And when I did, “That was GENIUS, sir!” I gripped his hand hard.
“Thank you. I sang from the heart.” He did indeed. And that’s just what I heard him with.