We were a little over a mile from the beach. A fierce ocean breeze swept through the valley most afternoons, bringing with it the smell of salt. Instead of stately oaks and elms, we were surrounded by palm trees and tract houses built after World War 2, simple three bedroom-1 bath stucco affairs with small patches of grass front and back, along Louise, Marion, and Mayor Drives.
There were two Mayor Drives, half moons, both streets changing names somewhere in the middle. On the east side of our neighborhood K-8 school, the other Mayor Drive turned into Juan Drive. On our side of the school, we shared the street with Theo. I never did know exactly where the division was.
This was my new world in the fifth grade after moving eight times and attending three other elementary schools. My parents had bought the house, painted it green, and planted a carrotwood tree. We were here to stay.
Named after its street, Calle Mayor the school was cutting-edge fifties, a low-slung institution designed to meet the needs of the onslaught of children born after the second world war. The entrance was a large grid of grass and cement with a flag pole and an American flag in the very middle. Behind that were administrative offices. Two wings of two long one-story buildings spread out in lazy vee-formation, grass between them, the furthest buildings opening onto black top and a huge grassy field.
On my first day of school, I wore a plaid dress with a white collar and long sleeves. Anxious to make a good first impression, I’d forgotten how hot it could be in Southern California in September. I had crescents of sweat under my arms by the time the first bell rang and we lined up in front of our classrooms, boys parallel to girls, all of us listening to the principal’s welcome to a brand new school year over the public address system.
While the sun burned hot against the back of my head, the principal made a few announcements about the cost of lunch in the cafetorium, the penalties for misbehavior, and the fire and drop drills that would be practiced periodically. We were in the deep freeze of the Cold War and we had to be prepared. I was eleven. I understood this. I’d seen a TV special showing what would happen if Russia decided to send an A-bomb our way.
Then the principal instructed us to stand at attention and put our hands on our hearts. The strains of the Star-Spangled banner boomed out over the speakers. The students stood perfectly still–that is my memory–and when the song ended, we said the Pledge of Allegiance.
I was proud to be an American and scared too because we’d emerged from a terrible war just fifteen years before, Korea seven, and new hostilities were evolving in Viet Nam, but I wasn’t so aware of these wars themselves as aware of the world created by them. America had been threatened by outsiders and was pulling into itself, trying to get on with the “Dream,” back when patriotism was still honorable.
I was too young to know about the Rosenbergs and McCarthyism and all the other awful things that had been perpetrated by fear. I understand clearly now that we are a flawed people, that we have often put people in power who make grievous decisions. We still do.
But I wonder if we’re letting too much slip through our fingers? We no longer say the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools. At sporting events many Americans no longer know the words to “America the Beautiful” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Are we so ashamed these days that we’re unwilling to admit we love our country? Isn’t there a way to be proud of our ideals, strive to accomplish them, and not condemn the whole institution because it is often run by people who are flawed just as we are all flawed? We’ve elected these politicians, but can’t we, if we care enough, elect them out of office? We can if we remember what the founding fathers believed in, what we believe in.
In the past, the Pledge sought to remind us of who we wanted to be and that we must always continue to strive for our ideals. Are we still reciting it now?
I can’t shake that moment on the Calle Mayor blacktop, relieved and proud to live in a country willing to make sacrifices for the ideals of freedom, justice, and honor.
For those who don’t remember, here is the Pledge. Recite it today of all days.
“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”