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.