Brilliant Reader Marlene asked me to repost a column I wrote for The Kansas City Star just after 9/11. I was thinking about it when I heard someone singing the National Anthem on Sunday. I was in a different life phase 10 years ago, on 9/11. I was a new father -- our Elizabeth was less than two weeks old -- and was emotional and exhausted and ecstatic. All of us had 9/11 affect us in different ways. The driving emotion I felt was wondering what world my daughter would come to know.
In any case, this column ran in The Kansas City Star on Sept. 14, 2001.
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Oh, say can you see, by the dawn's early light
Francis Scott Key wrote those words 187 years ago today. He died long before his poem became our national anthem. He obviously never knew that people across America would mostly hear and sing his words before games.
We won't hear those words much this weekend. The games are off. People argue back and forth about whether the NFL should play, whether there should be baseball games or auto races or sports of any kind.
Some say we should stop everything for a little while to let America heal a bit. Strong point.
Others say we should adamantly play on, live as normally as possible, never let the terrorists get the better of us. Also a
There are no right answers in times like this. No clear path. Everybody is just trying to do the best they can. But, one thing is certain: We still need to hear the national anthem.
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?
Francis Scott Key wrote his poem on the back of a letter he had in his pocket. He had been on a ship all night, watching the British shell Fort McHenry in Baltimore. Key was certain that Fort McHenry would not survive the pounding. This was during the War of 1812, and Key had already seen the British take Washington, set the White House on fire. These were bleak times.
Only, as sunlight hit, he could see the giant flag, tattered from the battle, still waving in the wind.
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight.
That flag inspired Key, and that's the image Americans hold close. That's why "The Star-Spangled Banner" is the national
anthem, why we hear it before games. Let's be honest, the lyrics are confusing and it's a hard song to sing. It is to the tune of an old English drinking song, "To Anacreon in Heaven." They could really hit the high notes in those old English pubs.
"America the Beautiful" is undeniably a more beautiful song - spacious skies and purple mountains and amber waves of grain and all that - especially when it's sung by Ray Charles.
"God Bless America" is a more delightful song, the mountains, the prairies, the oceans white with foam.
And there are other songs that might do a better job of celebrating America. "America (My Country, 'Tis Of Thee)." "This
Land Is Your Land." "Yankee Doodle."
We always stick with "The Star-Spangled Banner," though.
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
A rampart is a protective barrier, like a wall, that protects a city or a castle or a fort. Maybe you knew that. I didn't. Heard and
sang that song thousands of times, before all sorts of games in all sorts of places. Heard beautiful versions, like the one Ida McBeth sang before Sunday's Chiefs game, and quite a few lousy versions where the singer so butchered the tune, the song sounded like "Copacabana." Heard singers stop in the middle, unsure of the next word, only to have the crowd help them through. Heard others blow the lyrics but still plow through, recklessly, trampling innocent words like runaway trains.
Heard athletes sing it through tears at the Olympics. Heard Whitney Houston lip-sync it, heard Wynton Marsalis play it as if it were jazz, heard Marvin Gaye sing it as if it were soul.
Never knew what a rampart was, though. Until now.
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air.
Francis Scott Key was not a songwriter or a poet. No songwriter or poet would use the word "Rampart." No, he was a lawyer stuck on a ship, waiting for morning. And all night, he felt sure America would not survive. Through the years, him finding the flag still there has comforted and strengthened Americans. Soldiers from the North and South both sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" during the Civil War. The United States Army and Navy used it as their unofficial song for years before Congress
made it the national anthem in 1931. People at Chicago Stadium cheered through it during the Gulf War.
Mostly, though, we've all grown numb to the anthem in sports. Let's face it, through the years, we mainly wanted the song to get over. As Albert Brooks once said, they should replace the original words with "Oh, make this song end, so the game can begin."
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
There are always groups trying to get America to change the anthem. It's a hard song filled with violence and questions and
exceedingly high notes. But, our anthem tells a uniquely American story. No, it does not go on about fruited plains or home sweet home or Captain Washington on a slapping stallion. It just says very simply that through the night, through the fire, through the bombings, the flag was still there.
They won't play games this weekend as New York still burns and America takes tentative first steps back to everyday life. That's OK. The games will be back soon enough. We should still play and sing the national anthem this weekend, loud enough for everyone to hear. Yes, it's a much scarier world today that it was before Tuesday. But it's also been 187 years since Francis Scott Key saw the dawn's early light. The flag is still there.
Oh, say does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?