All the media attention being focused on Colin Kaepernick and his symbolic protest by not standing for the National Anthem reminded me of one of my own favorite National Anthem incidents.
I was a Platoon Leading Petty Officer (LPO), along with about 25 SEALs that were nearing the end of a training trip to San Clemente Island off the coast of Southern California. For those of you who think San Clemente sounds like a resort island, it’s not, or at least it wasn’t back then. It’s a rocky, treeless island half inhabited by environmentalists, the other half by various military units who use it to shoot and detonate in manners that couldn’t be accomplished anywhere else. The SEAL Teams maintained the most modern facility on the island to house advanced training for everyone from BUD/s students to deploying platoons.
Periodically there was a night off to clean equipment or relax. A frogman’s only choices were to hang with the collective group at the facility and watch TV, workout, or in rare cases, get a ride up to the club perched on top of the island. When I say “club” it’s not what you’re thinking. This facility was originally some other room that had been re-purposed into a bar. Think musty, 1970s dimly lit lounge, it reminded me vaguely of some establishments frequented in various Asian countries.
The bartender was a 50-something woman with an unlit cigarette hanging out of her mouth, Her eyes lit up like she’d won the lottery when 20+ SEALs wandered in and started taking seats. The bar was quiet, but within minutes pitchers of beer were flowing, music was blaring, and what was previously about to be closing time, has been transformed into happy hour.
Somehow, we also cajoled the bartender into making it karaoke night. Nobody seemed to care, the only other patrons were a couple of older contractors in the corner who seems to be enjoying the show. You haven’t laughed until you’ve seen a drunk Frogman revealing his inner feelings by belting out his favorite country song, or Whitney Houston ballad (that was a thing in the 90s).
I have to come clean, I like karaoke. I’m not good, I don’t have an award winning voice, but when I carefully select my audience, it’s a fun departure from my usual personality. I was however the best singer in the bar that night. After belting out my usual list of favorites and looking over the song menu, I saw the National Anthem was a choice. Having had a couple beers myself I didn’t put much thought into it, except that I’d always wondered what it would be like to sing the anthem in a stadium. A living room sized bar with 20 drunk SEALs, nearing midnight with a karaoke system being run through an old juke box was as close as I was going to get to opening the Super Bowl.
Nobody really paid any attention to the singers, we were up there just entertaining ourselves. The guys were loud, we were all getting tired, and side conversations dominated the room during the delay in between songs. I was unprepared for what was about to take place. By the time I got through “Oh say can..”, all talking stopped, beer mugs slammed on the tables, chairs got pushed back, and every single SEAL, patron and employee in the bar stood at attention, hand over their hearts, faced the flag hanging on the wall, and sang the National Anthem with the same conviction and reverence as if it were a formal military ceremony. I was caught completely off guard by the immediate transformation of a night of drinking with the boys that had suddenly turned into something far more serious. The song ended, a couple seconds of silence followed, then the conversations went back to normal.
In a bar on a barely inhabited island, 60 miles off the coast at 2300 where nobody would’ve known or cared if we stood for the National Anthem, it still meant something to those people who honored it. Our generation hadn’t even experienced the burdens of combat yet. The fact that we were SEALs is irrelevant, it could’ve been a room of Rangers, Marines, C-17 pilots, police, EMTs, and the list goes on. That song had a different impact on everyone in that bar, but the common thread is that we all gave up something to serve which gave it meaning.
The National Anthem shouldn’t be misunderstood as a show of support for the challenges our nation is experiencing. It’s a musical homage to the last 240 years of sacrifices we’ve collectively made to preserve our freedom to make choices. We sing the anthem, and respect the flag as symbol of unity and patriotism. The first rule in team building is having a symbol to identify with. Honoring the National Anthem isn’t going to fix our problems, but neither is simply sitting down.
Image courtesy of DoD