Sunday, July 02, 2006

#278 - Patriotism Is as Patriotism Does

I didn't think anything of the plastic flags that lined the walk leading to the church. They were just those cheesy little plastic flags that have become ubiquitous in cemeteries during holidays, and this was billed, after all, as a patriotic concert. Barely gave them a second glance as I hurried inside. My call was 5:30 for the concert, and I was already a half hour late.

Musically, the concert was unremarkable, really. Stuff I'd either done before, or was of the type that I could sight-read and perform after about two run-throughs. The choir was one of those pick-up choirs where folks volunteer (or, in my case, are guilted into volunteering), attend three or four rehearsals, and perform for a bunch of flag-wavers in your community. In other words, you weren't looking to hear the Dale Warland Singers here; you were more likely to think of Spike Jones.

The dividers at the back of the chapel open directly into the cultural hall, which had been decorated with a few dozen depictions of the American flag at various stages of design and purpose. Several of the "Don't Tread on Me" flags festooned one wall, while many versions of Old Glory up to and including our current 50 state flag surrounded the rest of the hall. At the back sat several tables where an honest-to-gosh ice cream social would await the audience.

The concert was hosted by our local LDS stake, but it was truly a community event. The chairperson of the event reminded me strongly of Eulalie McKecknie Shinn from "The Music Man." She had the kind of bearing that spoke to long hours of heading various committees - some probably by default - and getting the job done, or else. She gave all the appropriate recognitions, changed the program as required by circumstance ("The DVD honoring our Mr. and Ms. Senior Anaheim Hills has finally arrived, so we'll go ahead and show it now!"), and got the audience to clap as she announced every single committee chair and deputy chair ("And our fifth vice-chairman for the Arrangements Committee...!") that has had anything to do with this community's July 4th preparations.

Then came something that I knew was coming, but the intensity of which surprised me, I'm ashamed to admit. A sergeant wearing the beret of the 82nd, and who'd recently returned from Iraq, was introduced to the audience. The standing ovation he received was not entirely unexpected; this is, after all, a highly conservative part of a conservative county. But the ovation lasted for several minutes. Longer, indeed, than I would have predicted beforehand, and something that resonated with me for the remainder of the evening.

Suddenly, our little "Patriotic Community Concert" didn't seem so insignificant. Next up for the choir was a medley of all the anthems from the five major branches of the armed forces, wherein veterans of those who have served in those branches are invited to stand and be appreciated by the audience. And they were. There were vets from all five branches in attendance last night. Every one of them received hearty applause and even cheers from the audience. Personally, I have rarely been unable to articulate a piece of music because of a lump in my throat, but this certainly was the case during this part of the program. I was close to tears as we began each familiar anthem (excepting "Semper Paratus" for the Coasties... don't hear that one too frequently), and heard the clapping while watching several members of the audience stand to receive the praise and thanks of their neighbors. This sort of thing doesn't happen to me, darnit. I'm too professional to allow silly emotions to overwhelm a performance.

Or, perhaps, not.

The audience stood to sing "The Star Spangled Banner" and "America the Beautiful." Many of them were still able to sing all the verses from memory. The rest of the concert blurred its way past, and we suddenly found ourselves in the cultural hall, knocking back a cup or two of chocolate ice cream and mingling with friends. The first question on everyone's lips: "Where is everybody?"

It was a valid question. We've been advertising this concert for the last several weeks in our ward meetings, and several of us committed to join the choir after being informed that this was a chance to "mingle with the community" and demonstrate our commitment both to our town and our country. Four of us participated from our ward. About twice that many more showed up to listen. It's not that no one came; certainly there were plenty of people in attendance. But I had fully expected more from our own ward to come and support the concert. "Where is everybody," indeed.

Up to that point, I had been feeling somewhat redeemed. As a blogger who occasionally strays into socio-political discourse, it becomes so easy to take a cynical view of the world around me. I get bone-weary of the constant fights between conservative and liberal idealogues who couldn't have a reasoning discussion on any topic if their lives depended on it (which, fortunately for them, is not the case). I even wondered idly to myself in the minutes before the concert began whether we would be visited by protestors who would try to disrupt our goodwill for the sake of making themselves look silly while they got hauled off to jail.

People should have been there to hear the (short!) talk given by one of our city councilmen. He appreciated having this concert in a church, he said, because it serves to remind us that this country was founded on principles given to man by God (gasp!). He said the word "Creator" in the Declaration of Independence was not capitalized by accident. And these rights, endowed on us by Him, are being protected by the troops we were saluting that very evening.

A better speech I have rarely heard. He mentioned God no fewer than 10 different times in a talk that lasted barely 10 minutes. And he sounded like he meant it, too. It made me realize that I can't take responsibility for how other people view their citizenship in this country. I need to focus on my own efforts. I either support this nation, or I don't. But I can only improve my own efforts, and pray for others to see their own way clear to help.

As we left the building last night, we proudly sported our new blinking flag pins. They cost us $5 each, but the money was needed to offset the slight budget shortfall for all of the events planned for the 4th. They were only $1500 short as of last night. I hope we got them much closer to zero with our donations.

Walking out into the still-warm evening air, I noticed the flags lining the walkway. Simple, plastic, cheesy flags.

They've never looked better.

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