FISH OUT OF WATER: My American Idyll

June 13, 2023

This excerpt is from chapter seven in Fish Out of Water: A Search for the Meaning of Life called My American Idyll.

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On June 14, 1973, Mrs. Saul, my fifth-grade teacher at Beaver Brook School in Danbury, Conn., took the 12 of us in her class outside to the flagpole to celebrate Flag Day. It had been nearly 200 years since the same date in 1777 when the Revolutionary Congress adopted the Stars and Stripes as the new country’s emblem. June 14 has been designated as Flag Day ever since—though it’s a sad certainty that most Americans will pass the day without noticing.

Until entering Mrs. Saul’s class, I had attended a Greek Orthodox parochial school in Queens, N.Y., so when we went out to the flagpole I assumed this was something most Americans did annually, and I’d just been missing it. But I now realize this was probably something that Mrs. Saul—who was in her 70s—had been doing since she became a schoolteacher in the 1930s, and that few Americans were doing it anymore.

By 1973, as the Vietnam War continued and Watergate unfolded, the country had entered the era that continues to this day, in which the regnant narrative is more about what America has done to repent of than to celebrate. A ritual like honoring the flag was on the way out.

Under the blue June sky we stood in a circle around the flagpole and then my trumpet teacher, Mr. Piccarello, pulled out his gleaming silver cornet and played “My Country, ’Tis of Thee,” as we sang along.

After that he played “Taps,” often used at flag ceremonies. It was sonorous and solemn and beautiful. Those moments over 40 years ago so pricked my heart that I still think of them with the deepest reverence.

Without saying so, Mrs. Saul was doing something profound: She was teaching us to love our country. In the process, we were being drawn into the circle of all those celebrating that day, and into the larger circle of those who had loved America throughout her history—and who had been doing what Benjamin Franklin in 1787 had said we must do, or else.We 11- and 12-year-olds understood that what we were doing was somehow important, and that this flag we were celebrating was more than a red-white-and-blue banner. It was a sacred symbol that pointed toward something beyond itself, that pointed to the thing it represented—to America, the country we’d been learning about, the nation “born in liberty” and “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

The 82-year-old Franklin was exiting Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where he and others had just finished creating the Constitution—and our nation—when a certain Mrs. Powell confronted him. “What have you given us, Dr. Franklin,” she asked pointedly, “a monarchy or a republic?”

Franklin’s response is famous: “A republic, Madam—if you can keep it!”

Standing around that flagpole 43 years ago, we were doing our small but vital part in “keeping” the republic. We were thus becoming Americans not in name only, but in our hearts and minds. America is the only nation not defined by ethnicity or religion, but by an unprecedented idea: liberty for all. So to truly be an American one must understand that idea, and must buy into it, and live it.

What we did that day was not indoctrination into some nationalistic, tribalist cause—God forbid—but an invitation to something noble and true and eternal. We were being connected to the “mystic chords of memory” of which Lincoln spoke, and to the sacrifices of all those who had died for the country, and to those still returning in coffins from Vietnam.

We were becoming part of something intended for everyone, but not yet possessed by everyone. We were being entrusted with the great privilege of maintaining the flame of liberty, that others beyond our shores might see it and be drawn to it.

So, my dear fellow Americans, a question: How well have we been “keeping” this wild and fragile and unprecedented idea of a republic born in liberty? Let me be the first to admit: I’ve been sorely negligent. I reckon I’ve got to make up for about four decades of lost time. This Flag Day, I’m getting started. I hope you’ll join me.