Essay

What’s still there

By July 24, 2020 10 Comments

It was, I’d like to believe, at least something like this rendition–big choir, lots of folks on stage. I was a boy–kindergarten, first grade or second–and it seems to me that the woman who ran the whole pageant that Fourth of July night was my own beloved kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Nyenhuis, another mom really, a teacher who fashioned a child’s first scary year of school into pure joy. 

We don’t do pageants anymore, probably for good reason: there’s too much cynicism in all of us. But I was, back then, on the other side of ten years old, and the whole event, right there in the Oostburg Village Park, was big time. Was huge. Somewhere during the show, I walked across the stage–I have no idea when, perhaps as the pioneers were introduced or something. I’m almost sure I had some kind of costume Mom put together, but all of that is long gone.

What isn’t, sixty-plus years later, is the grand finale, when everyone who had any kind of role crowded back on the makeshift stage for “This is My Country.” I’m sure Mrs. Nyenhuis asked the crowd to join in. It was a massive village celebration, sometime mid-fifties maybe, when, in that crowd, almost any dad–like mine–had some kind of service uniform he still could have worn, folded neatly in some upstairs closet. 

What diff’rence if I hail from North or South
Or from the East or West?
My heart is filled with love for all of these.
I only know I swell with pride and deep within my breast
I thrill to see Old Glory paint the breeze.

I don’t remember holding sheet music, don’t remember reading lyrics, and we were several decades away from some massive screen. I only remember standing up there among many others, most of them older, and I remember singing. We’d just told the blessed nation’s story in a procession of tableau tales I was just old enough to understand; and now, the last song before the fireworks, the finale, had everyone in town standing, hearts overflowing with love and swelled with pride “to see Old Glory paint the breeze.”

I was struck almost mute by an emotion I could not have identified but understood to have grown up within me when that Old Glory flew high somewhere just off stage. Whatever it was, this attack seemed almost crippling, and a bit scary because somehow it rose out of my own control. I couldn’t have shusshed it, couldn’t have stanched the wave of whatever it was that clouded my eyes, made my lips go all bouncy. I remember singing, but not as loud as I might have because something alive was coursed through me. It was my first trembling moment of love of country, even though I knew next to nothing about American history.

With hand upon heart I thank the Lord 
For this my native land,
For all I love is here within her gates.
My soul is rooted deeply in the soil on which I stand,
For these are mine own United States.

The old hymn’s passionate possessive adjectives sound pushy today–so heavy on my; but I was a kid, and I wasn’t thinking of keeping others out or running others off. At that precious moment in my perception, “This is my country” was a spiritual testimony. I lived in a rich and beautiful land, a land that actually, truly, belonged to me too, just as it belonged to every other kid on that stage beneath the stars. 

The song itself had very little history in the mid-50s. It was composed in 1940, and made popular by Fred Waring and his singers (one of whom was from Oostburg). Somehow I knew every word, probably because my mother pounded it out time and time again on our piano while my father sang along. 

That night, Fourth of July, it mysteriously filled me with an emotion I’d never felt before and didn’t understand, and claimed its own homestead in my heart’s memory. Whatever coursed through me I knew had to do with the land, with George Washington, Betsy Ross, and  “Fourscore and seven years ago.” And it had to do with fighting wars–it had to do with what little I understood of battles won and lost, and sacrifice, and then also the sheer beauty of mountains and fruited plains in a land that somehow, even to a boy, seemed new and brimming with possibility.

I am so far beyond that right about now, Independence Day just a couple weeks behind us. The moment that night, and “This is My Country,” comes as a flashback I’ll always remember because I cannot forget. Still makes me smile. Proudly.

“Innocence,” some sage said, “is so much more powerful than experience.” Sometimes it is.

Something got lost. I’ll never be seven again. I can’t go back to an Oostburg childhood and a Fourth of July the village American Legion doesn’t even celebrate anymore, if there is a Legion at all. What’s more, I’m embarrassed by the language of that patriotic hymn now rarely sung. But I can never and will never give up the memory of that Fourth. That night still stirs up a smile in my soul. 

This is my country! Land of my choice!
This is my country! Hear my proud voice!
I pledge thee my allegiance, America, the bold,
For this is my country! To have and to hold.

I remember.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

10 Comments

  • Also, remember those Oostburg 4th of Julys with tender thoughts!

  • Jim says:

    All of that, Jim—me too. But then these on the other hand: those same songs wrangling our generation to Vietnam to kill for what? And Oostburg itself having long been a sunset town. How to hold all of these together? And how then to go forward?

    • James Schaap says:

      I suppose that’s the big question. What came back to me this Fourth of July was that dust musical memory. I was surprised myself at the music–really, the only element of the pageant that stayed with me, an old patriotic song that, for good reason maybe, no one sings anymore (even the Youtube video I used is several decades old). In the era of Trump, patriotism–at Mount Rushmore, etc.–feels kitsch-ish, But that childhood memory is very pure. I wanted to pull that old childlike faith out of the closet again in order to take its shine off. But I couldn’t. Innocence is, at times, better than experience. I just couldn’t pooh-pooh it. Maybe you heard John Meacham talking about John Lewis, explaining why he took on a book project about him–because, Meacham said, as a fellow believer, he wanted to understand Lewis, whose faith he could never take on because Lewis’s faith was so clear, so perfectly transparent, so pure. I wanted to unpack that memory to belittle it, but I couldn’t do it. I’m not particularly patriotic, haven’t been so for a long, long time. But I don’t want to soil that memory with a tablespoon of my own ample cynicism. I grew up–we all do; but I’m telling myself not to darken the innocence of that old moment. I just want to keep it the way it was, just as, for instance, I will hold on to another precious memory of the march on Washington after Kent State, May, 1970. They’re both who I am. Does that make sense?

  • Henry Baron says:

    This is my/our country – yes!
    And there were moments of greatness.
    Can we make it so again?
    For everyone?

    Thanks, Jim.

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    Hi Jim, well, I suppose nostalgia better than amnesia. Will somebody please take us a little bit further?

    • James Schaap says:

      I could, I think, but I didn’t want to toss the me who was there and what so inexplicably ran through me. Still don’t.

  • Doug Vande Griend says:

    It seems to me that we have had a pendulum swing, from a rather schmaltzy patriotic (civic religion) time in the 50’s / 60’s / maybe early 70’s (post WW 2, Korean War, Vietnam War) to a rather opposite perspective that is now, in 2020. Back then we (including in the Dutch reformed community) celebrated “America” without mention of its history of failures, or of present warts or faults. Now we (including in the Dutch reformed community, at least the progressive end that dominants, e.g., the Reformed Journal audience) exclusively laments and mourns “America” and mentions nothing but its history of failures, of present warts and faults, and its purported continuance of injustice and oppression. Today’s pendulum position is evidenced by the lack of thanks-for-this-James comments to this article. Those who would otherwise post that probably perceive this contribution as too complimentary to “America.”

    Neither end of the pendulum swing arc represents an accurate, or constructive, perspective.

    Like any country, but not more than any other, the US, as a nation represented by a government, has a history that is filled with skeletons of fault. It is the way things are with countries represented by governments. But for some reason, this country is now detested by many of its own people–or at least by those of its own who have been here for quite a while. Most of those who came recently came did so because they thought “America is a great place to be,” and thousands upon thousands of other people who are not would love to be here, again because they perceive “America” to be great place to live.

    Why the disconnect? Why has Portland, Oregon (50 miles north of me) had 50+ nights of rioting by those who make it quite clear (by saying so publicly) that they want to “dismantle the United States as we know it,” ironically condemning the US, among many other reasons, for not allowing free entrance into it all of of those thousands who want to come here? Do those thousands not know that “America” is a horrible and unjust place?

    So just what “is a country” after all? We talk about the United States or Canada or Germany or China, etc., but rarely do we articulate what we are precisely talking about. Is it the culture’s culture? When this song says “This is my country! Hear my proud voice!”, what exactly is saying? I’m not sure, but when I opine about a country, including the US, I almost always have in mind a rather non-schmaltzy evaluation of its constitution and its laws, the former generally resulting from actions taken long ago, plus an “evolution” since then; the latter from those acts of those recently elected to governmental offices. Certainly, what a nation’s government is and does can be a consequence of the country’s “culture” but these days, and especially in the US, “a culture” is impossible to discern because the US consists of many cultures. For example, the culture in NW Iowa is really different than the culture in Portland, Oregon, or Dallas, Texas.

    But that is exactly why I “love America” (in a non-schmultzy way of course). The US still has, despite all of the condemnatory noise of late, a system of laws, constitutional and otherwise, that allows its people to create their own cultures, or sub-cultures; to live as they choose to live, including in community with others (no, the United States does not mandate “individualism” or “greedy capitalism”). The political/legal structure in the US does a pretty good job of providing for a government that does what it should do (because it is government) and yet allow its people the political freedom to live as they will, creating cultures and sub-cultures of their choosing rather than as dictated by government.

    And that’s why so many people from other places want to come here. That’s why Dutch people came here, and German people, and Chinese people, and Russian people, Middle East people, etc etc etc etc. The United States, still, allows its people to largely live the way they choose to live.
    When I say, “I love America,” that’s what I “love” about it.

    These days, an awfully noisy crowd — of Americans no less — say they want to “dismantle the United States as we know it,” including in the way that makes me think the the US is such a great place to be and live, ironically even for those of the noisy crowd who want to dismantle it. I would hope we would not get caught up in that, but recognize it as destructive noise heard at the far end of a pendulum swing.

    • James Schaap says:

      Thanks ever so much for the thoughts. While I may differ from your sense of the lay of the land, I appreciate your thoughtful response and your sense that what I was trying to do was make a case for a me I’d like to preserve, even though I have to work at it. I took aim at my childishness, dug it out to dirty it. But when it emerged I simply found the innocent emotions, 65 years ago, too rich to target.

Leave a Reply