Friday, July 15, 2011

Patriotic...and Pagan

Around 10 p.m. on September 11, 2001, when it seemed the entire world was still, I was sitting on the front porch of my house having a cup of tea and staring up into the inky infinity of the sky. Dressed in my Disaster Service jumpsuit, I was waiting for a friend to pick me up so we could head up to the Meadow Lands as part of the second shift relief EMS. My inquisitive familiar, Tinker, sat in the window, periodically letting out a piercing yowl, just to let me know that she-an avowed indoor cat-was not pleased that I was outside and she and I were on opposite sides of the wire window screen. I'd turned to say something soothing to my frustrated feline, when suddenly, my attention was attracted skyward. (I was hypersensitive to all noise and motion-I think everyone was that night.) Squinting, I saw it- low,big, black, triangular, and moving very, very slowly for an aircraft. It was low enough that I could see the rivets in its skin, and I wondered,"Is it 'ours'?" For the first time in my life,  I was sitting on the front porch of the house I grew up in, located in a blue collar mid-Atlantic neighborhood, looking up fearfully at the sky and wondering if the low-flying aircraft I was seeing was really an American plane flying in United States airspace. A chill ran up my spine and I shivered  because even though I could see the plane in detail clearly at night, I could discern no familiar red,white, and blue markings and no American flag. It was just a big black wedge-shaped aircraft with teeth for a tail. It was struck at how deadly it looked and how silent it a flying shark. I wondered if we were at war, and what would happen if the bay doors on the underbelly opened suddenly and discharged a bomb. To be honest, I wasn't all that concerned for myself and my safety- but I did wonder what would happen to Tinker if the resulting blast didn't kill both of us instantly and obliterate the neighborhood. I wasn't afraid of dying, but I couldn't stand the thought of my dear animal companion surviving-perhaps wounded and in pain-only to later starve to death.
I was a patriotic kid. I knew the words to all of the service anthems-From the Halls of Montezuma , Anchors Aweigh, Off  We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder, When the Caissons Go Rolling Along ( before the word "caisson" was changed to " Army").  I was the only kid in my second grade class that knew what that thing that JFK's casket was transported on was ( a horse-drawn caisson), and it was awesome to have that knowledge! By the age of seven I knew how to properly fold an American flag (with tight corners) into a triangle, and all of the flag etiquette that went with it. We made red, white and blue bunting from crepe paper before it was commercially available to hang for all patriotic holidays. I also knew how to make red pom-pom poppies out of  yarn, because of the poppies at Flanders Field... and I knew the words to the poem as well.

My grandfather, who raised me, spent 11 years of his life in the military. He graduated from the United States Army Cooks and Bakers School at Fort Dix in Burlington County, New Jersey(The same place my father graduated from in the early years of the Korean conflict). Pop was very proud of his service in the military, despite the fact  it was the lesser of two evils: the other choice was jail. My great-grandfather married a younger woman after his first wife died. They started a 'second family'. Pop and his four brothers and single sister were sidelined. Pop and one of his brothers stole some money out of their step-mother's purse, and she convinced my great-grandfather to put the boys in a 'reform school' which was the 1920's version of juvenile detention. So Pop chose the Army when he turned 18, went to school, learned a trade, and narrowly missed being sent to China with the First Engineers.

The Army made him a good cook and a Sargent, then assigned him to Fort DuPont, where he met my grandmother, who was a 14 year old  girl with a 3rd grade education and working in the back room of Sterling's Bar. They raised two daughters on $21 dollars a month, which was a lot more than ordinary foot soldiers made. Pop supplemented their income by hunting in the surrounding swamps for frogs and muskrats to sell  to nearby merchants. I never heard him say a bad word about the Army- even when I found out after he died that he'd been busted down to Private and spent time in the brig for a drunken excursion resulting in tearing down a metal fence on the base. He had a huge, ugly scar on his leg for the rest of his life from that accident. ( I'd love to find out the rest of the story someday, because when I became a paramedic many decades later, I couldn't help but notice how much that scar resembled a bullet wound!) The VA representative took entirely too much pleasure in unceremoniously informing  me that Pop was discharged as a Private, not a Sargent, and that I couldn't have the military headstone he was entitled to because he'd let the salesman at the cemetery talk him into having  the bronze marker laid on the grave site pre-need to save on storage fees. This infuriated me...I wanted that damn  headstone  more than anything, I wanted him to have some sort of recognition of having served in the military because it had been his entire life for more than a decade. What I ended up doing was scraping together my last $50 at the time and having the cement foundation for the flat headstone dug up and the bronze marker ripped off it so an Army emblem could be installed on  the marker. I found his honorable discharge card in the bank security box after he died...and it said he was discharged as a Sargent.  For all of the rest of the years I lived in the house after he died, I made certain there was an American flag posted on his grave on both Memorial and Veteran's Days.
There seemed to be some confusion about what toys little proper girls played with when I was growing up: Pop saw to it that I got a fresh supply of little green plastic soldiers every Christmas, to go along with the Army helmet, gun and hand grenade that exploded using caps. Another Christmas I was proudly gifted with a three foot long electronic battleship which ran across the floor in a see-sawing up and down motion to resemble breaching waves and rang general quarters (annoying and loud). The Battleship was fully armed with a forward battery of smoking canons, little plastic jets that hurled off the deck and  hard plastic missiles with rubber tips.There was a working signal lamp on the top of the ship, and Pop taught me Morse Code.The missiles, sadly, soon disappeared after I shot one of them completely through the living room and into the kitchen where it made pay dirt with the inside of Pop's left ankle...and left a bruised welt the size of a half dollar. For years afterward we kept finding some of the tiny white plastic HO scale sailors that clipped to the deck of the B-Whatever, and the odd paper Old Glory that fell off the string of flags that hung from the com tower. There was a great deal of pleasure and pride at my house that I could accurately sink origami paper boats in the back yard fishpond with  this horrendous, ludicrously dangerous toy. It was dutifully brought out on D-Day, Veterans Day and Memorial Day and literally paraded around as a show of deep and meaningful respect for our country's freedom right after attending the military parade of the day in the city. Not kidding. I also collected lead soldiers and a series of famous West Point cadets from Woolworth's Five and Dime, because it was a show of American pride to be able to display these trinkets.
I loved military parades with marshal music(still do), and I was taught to snap to attention and salute every American flag that went down the street. For years I actually believed the words to the National Emblem March were  about a monkey wrapping his tail around the flagpole, because that's what Pop swore he was taught in the Army- and I would gleefully sing this loudly off -key, as only a child missing her front teeth could...because that's what you did as a patriot when I was growing up. You knew all the high points of American History and that soldiers fought and died for our freedom....and you were unquestioningly grateful they did.

When I was growing up, being a patriotic American also meant you were a Christian. There was no question about being anything else, because I didn't know about anything other religion ( except Jews). The two inexplicably went hand-in-hand. You could not be one without the other. I had a vague sense that Jews in our country were also patriotic, but I'm not sure I believed they were Americans at the time. Everyone else was a foreigner, a Communist Russian  or someone needing saving by Jesus....because that's what we were taught in school. The foreigners and Commies weren't God-fearing.  During the cold war years I had a vague sense that I would never make it to 12 years of age because that evil bald bogeyman in Russia (Nikita Khrushchev) wanted to kill American kids. That's why they used to drag us out into the hallways to stand against the wall and have us cover our heads for the time when the bombs would be  dropped. We developed a staggeringly wrong-headed amount of civic pride, but we didn't know any better. That was the innocence of a child's world in the 50's and 60's.

I became an insufferably jaded teenager during the 70's. Vietnam was still raging, and I didn't trust the government. I didn't trust God, either. God let my oldest brother die in Vietnam in a war I didn't understand then and doubt I ever will understand for as long as I live. Our government kept referring to it as a 'police action'.Sounded to me like they were handing out parking tickets. They didn't even honor his sacrifice with the decency of calling it a war. So I stopped standing during the Pledge of Allegiance. I refused to sing the Star-Spangled Banner because the words were difficult to make fit the tune and I had no point of reference to connect it with anything current. Beside the tune was taken from  an English drinking song and I found no pride in that being our National Anthem. I sewed an American flag on the rear end of my favorite pair of jeans so I could sit my ass on it every time I sat down.I understand now the intensity of  the emotions of  a teen- and what an internal battle for meaning and sanity they go through. Something honest and true about being an American still remained deeply ingrained within me, but I wrestled uncomfortably with the idea of being a Patriot.
And then something happened in my life, something wonderful, even if I couldn't put my finger on it...Immanence came into my life. The kid who used to used to collect rocks and leaves (but only the magickal ones) began  listening to the song of the wind and hearing the voices of Nature and out of that came a redefined sense of the world. The Earth was alive. Spirit was alive.God wasn't just an old man sitting on a throne in the sky..God was everywhere, in everything- and quite possibly female. Life was sacred. Freedom was a holy estate made so by the blood of  many who sacrificed their lives to make living sacred....but it still wasn't cool to be demonstratively patriotic according to the Book of Teen Club Rules, and I wasn't taking any chances on having my membership matter how I was feeling inside. I went through a phase where I wrote poetry, and  I began journaling. One day I packed a lunch, hoped on my bike and went off to the quarry behind our neighborhood.The quarry was my 'special 'place to go when I wanted to think. It was away from everywhere and largely abandoned, the place where I found rocks with iron deposits flecked with quartz in them. It was sunny in some parts and shaded in others, and I could dig out a seat in the soil on the rough incline and plant myself into it and become a part of the terrain.

On this particular day, three bites into an awesome garlic baloney sandwich, I  was feeling my oats and intended on listing all the reasons why I thought living in America sucked. To me, England was way cooler- Twiggy, Peter Sellers ( the prototype for Austin Powers),go-go boots, psychedelic paisley, TM, The Animals, Herman's Hermits and the Beatles all came from England. Carnaby Street in London was the Mod capital of the world, yeah, baby! Once I'd noted that living here sucked because your parents put a serious crimp in your personal freedom (like I actually had a notion about having a real life then), I was pretty much out of things to add to the list. I guess I pretty much knew the revolution was over then. Wasn't this the country where I was pretty much free to do and say anything I wanted? ( Excluding parental control, of course!) Why, I could even tell everyone how superior I thought the Beatles music was to that of Elvis without getting shot at ( well, maybe not so much in Memphis); I could wear my hair as long and my skirt as short as I wanted; I could have a Coke at the drug store;  travel pretty much wherever I wanted unrestricted, and say that Nature was God...and that God was not male, but female- out loud. Maybe I got some funny looks when I said it, but no one was gathering kindling to built a fire under my feet, either. Not only that, but if someone didn't like my religious view point, that was okay, too...because the Constitution of the United States backed up my assertions. It protected everyone. If I wanted to go dip water out of the stream, pour it over my head, build a circle of stones and dance around in the moonlight while calling God  by a feminine name and say it was a spiritual experience...then I could. I could call myself a Pagan if I wanted, and I could be Pagan in this country in a way that I could not in any other country on Earth. The patriotic epiphany had descended.

I'm not as naive as I was. I have a keen sense of social justice that has caused me to be very much aware of the faults of my government. But I also remember what's right with America, and I know what we're missing...good old-fashioned, no holds barred celebrations of our country's history, of the days of pride- such as July 4th, Veteran's Day, Armed Forces Day...and the days of sorrow, the anniversary of dropping the atomic bomb on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and Memorial Day. Patriotism needs balance, to keep it from being obsession, just like everything else. I can love my country, appreciate what the founders of this nation did to give it roots and wings, and support out military with gratitude, all while hating the concept of war and killing and elitism.

I'm really not as much of a flag waver as it sounds, but I have come to appreciate what citizenship has given me. I could not be a Pagan in the same way I am today if I were in any country other than America...and for that, I can gratefully wave her flag in return. 

( This blog is a re-print of an article, which originally appeared in the Summer 2011 issue of Witches Hour Magazine. My apologies for the bad editing  if you read it the magazine-my fault, not theirs. Editing in Blogger sucks sometimes, LOL).


  1. The commonality that you and I share never ceases to amaze me. Ok, I did *not* sew the American flag onto the back of my britches, but I considered it. I was a Military Brat living in a Military town. My father and so many fellows I knew were off to war (oops - erm, yeah - police action)and a few never returned, my father included. I wrote many angry poems, chose a flower child/then hippie lifestyle and called upon the Goddess to guide me. And She always has ... for years I ignored her consort/son, but as I aged, I mellowed and embraced Her Masculine Divine once again. I do sometimes wish that I had a flair for putting words together like you do. Thanks for sharing this. You're so beautiful!

  2. Wonderful post ... thank you for sharing!


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