With all the struggles going on all around the world today, and with all the wonderful good things that are happening as well. one would think that something as trivial as the national anthem or the pledge of allegiance, which should have been a doo-wop hit in the fifties, would never occupy more than a second or two in anyone’s consciousness. I mean, here I am ceaselessly speculating about where Giancarlo Stanton might be playing next season and which body part of mine will be the next to go on the disabled list, and people are actually getting excited about symbols and rituals that most of the world could not care less about.
In the late fifties, speaking of doo-wop, my brother Jimmy and I were very frequent listeners to the radio station KDKA, which has been the flagship station for the Pittsburgh Pirates longer than greasy politicians have been milking faux patriotism for easy votes and convenient distraction.
By the way, the doo-wop hit The Ten Commandments of Love, was recorded by the Moonglows. I was more into the Dell Vikings and the Flamingos. Anyway, KDKA. My brother and I were spending a lot of time at the family business, a once thriving grocery and meat market that was in its dying days as it fell victim to the get bigger or get out aspect of capitalism. There wasn’t a lot to do, although our father assured us regularly that there was as he , always an innovator, practiced an early form of remote management. One pastime was playing batter versus pitcher, with the steel used to sharpen butcher knives serving as the bat and rolled up slices of Wonder Bread as the ball. And there were many Pirates games to listen to as well. These were the days of Frank (Not the Big Hurt) Thomas, Dick Groat, Bob Friend, Bill Mazeroski, Roberto Clemente, and Bob Skinner brought to us by the always entertaining voice of Bob Prince. Whenever the Pirates visited the Chicago Cubs, an odd thing about Wrigley Field mystified us. At game time, they would just start playing ball. There was no playing of the Star Spangled Banner before the first pitch. We liked that. After all, when you wait all day for a game to start, who wants to sit, I mean stand,through another rendition of that seemingly endless tune before the first pitch? Like the ump eventually says, play ball! Nevertheless, we were curious. So Jimmy, always a keen student, decided to find out. He wrote a letter to Al Abrams, a sports columnist and perhaps sports editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Before long, Mr. Abrams replied. Imagine that, a real sports writer sending Jimmy a letter! In the letter, Mr. Abrams informed us that Mr. P.K. Wrigley, the Cubs’ owner, did not want the anthem played at his ball park but the reason was not specified. I liked the guy immediately. Not only did he spare us a boring couple of minutes, but he was being a non conformist in the wildly conservative club of sports team owners. This guy needed to get together with Bill Veeck! Maybe the chewing gum king was a raging Communist! After all, his yard didn’t have lights either.
These days I am more of a follower of the San Francisco Giants. They have a faceless conglomerate of owners just like most multi-zillion dollar outfits but, up until last year, while, of course, the national anthem was done before each game by everyone from the Grateful Dead to the Colma-Daly City Men’s Auxiliary Produce Buyers Barbershop Quartet, they would not air it on their flagship station, KNBR. Then they started playing it because it became yet another sponsored item just like the Viking Cruises on deck circle. Speaking of San Francisco, it was a former quarterback of theirs who got so many knickers in twists by trying to draw attention to police brutality. That is what happens in this sin obsessed country among folks who get their spiritual guidance from the likes of the bloated buffoon of talk radio Rush Limbaugh and Mike (not Hunter) Pence. It’s all so lame that it is hardly worth wasting words on but here I am doing that because, from what I can see, there are a lot of people who can’t find anything else to get upset about.
The pledge of allegiance is a series of words spoken by many with about as much passion behind it as a convenience store clerk has telling you to have a nice day. When children are forced to say things they don’t mean or even understand over and over, it’s just stupid. Rituals start out perhaps over a very meaningful event that is getting memorialized, but over time, without reinforcement or something that demonstrates in a real way what they represent, they become just going through the motions, or dead time. Jimmy and I were both altar boys back in the day and I will tell two stories about those times that have nothing to do with priestly grab ass, take a breath, but might border on sacrilege. Since Mass generally occurred at the crack of dawn on Sundays, Jimmy and I were all about getting it over with as soon as possible, so we could have some breakfast before getting into a fight and then get out there and deliver on our Sunday paper route, which took us about three hours to complete. Then we could have lunch and go play ball in the back yard or watch a game or, most often, do both. The guy we liked was Father Wehrle, who was capable of getting it done in a half hour or so, including sermon. Some other priests were more deliberate or else gave long, stern sermons that prolonged matters and made our stomachs growl. There was generally a little bit of time before Mass to chat, and on one of those occasions I mentioned how happy I was that the famous Mickey school, Notre Dame, had made mincemeat out of their opponent on the gridiron the previous day. Father Wehrle’s response rather shocked me. “I suppose you root for them because it’s a Catholic school,” he said without merriment. “Sure do”I replied, thinking I was scoring points with the pastor. He then proceeded to give me a short, curt, and astounding lecture on provincialism and prejudice that embarrassed me at the time but also schooled me in a manner that has lingered. Speed at the altar was just one good thing about him.
Those half hour church sessions were one thing, but on special occasions a High Mass was required. This meant three priests, a master of ceremonies, and the whole roster got to play, with big time organ music, a choir, and torch bearers. The litanies were a sort of call and answer thing and at the time they were done in Latin, which was pretty cool. So the priest would call out Ora pro nobis or some such Latin thing and the answer would follow and it had a chant type sound which is great in cathedrals and not so hot in smaller venues. While I was bearing the torch on one of these occasions along with Jimmy, we noticed that one of our older brothers was laughing quietly to himself. It goes without saying that litanies are repetitious. Later, we just had to ask him what was so funny, because laughing in church, which is apparently okay now, was frowned upon in those days and might result in the laugher’s ear lobe getting pinched between the thumb and forefinger of the nearest vigilant nun. What he thought was funny was that he and some other of the senior altar boys would repeat, instead of the proper Latin response “Read it in the magazine”. Look, it may not seem funny now, but it was then.
Another good point that was made in my youth was that, if your faith, or your belief, or your love was strong, you did not need to show it off with some ritual display; indeed, early Christians had to worship very privately. So here is the deal. You love your family because it is your family, no questions asked. If you love your country because it is indeed a land of equal opportunity, because its people show respect for each other no matter how they look, or dress, or no matter what language they speak or god they worship (or not), then that is right and good. On the other hand, if you love your country just because it’s your country, then you need to have a talk with someone like Father Wehrle. My dad would sometimes, when the anthem was being played prior to a televised game, stand straight and tall and salute the screen. He was kidding but I don’t think he was being disrespectful to anyone save hypocrites. I used to chime in at the end with “..and the home of the Milwaukee Braves.”