By Rosalie Tirella
I seem to have grown more patriotic with age. I remember when I played apathetic American years ago, as a dopey kid: sorta standing, shoulders slouched, of course, kinda placing a very limp hand over my heart during the Pledge of Allegiance as it blared over the loud speaker at home room in Burncoat Senior High School. I was 17 then, a cool graduating senior. I did my best to look bored with the whole deal – too cool (it was 1979!) to feel the love for old America, too dopey to understand the idea of America, too immature to get down on my knees (like my grandmother would) and thank God for America.
I remember a few years later, when I was 19, and the Vietnam War had wound down but there was still a draft. I told my mother, if young women were to be callled up: I would never fight. I would high tail it to Canada.
I had never really seen my mom look ashamed of me; she never berated me either. This time was different – she was actually mad at her favorite daughter. “Rosalie,” she said in a stern tone of voice I had never heard before, “you wouldn’t die for your country?” Then, my 40-something year-old mom, a woman way past her prime from raising three kids alone and working 60 hours a week at a minimum wage crap job in an inner-city Worcester neighborhood, said with iron-clad pride: “I would fight for my country! I would die for my country!”
I didn’t get her.
All I knew is that if the Soviet Union had bombed us that second, my mother would have run to city hall, kitchen carving knife in hand, and demanded: WHERE CAN I ENLIST?!
Today at age 85, my mother was/is part of the World War II/Great Depression generaton – the group of folks newscaster Tom Brokow has dubbed: THE GREATEST GENERATION. And they were/are! Tough as nails, my mother is. My uncles and aunts the same – all determined, industrious people who always were/are honest, decent, polite and ready to help a person when the chips are down. They believe: we are in this thing together. We all rise together/fall together. We are Americans! They always sing the National Anthem, too. Know it by heart! They sing it loud and proud at baseball games and other public events. My mom, even with her dementia, hums the pre-game “Star Spangled Banner” when she watches her beloved Red Sox on TV.
My grand parents were just as patriotic as my mom. I remember my feisty old grandma from Poland used to tell people she loathed – like my ne’er do well, peripatatic father – “You no like this country? You no love this country?! Then get the hell out! Get the hell out!” Then she would turn to my father and show him her chunky round butt (swaddled in her flannel housecoat) and whack it hard. Her poverty-wracked life in America had swept the niceties away. Still, for my “Bapy,” it was church every day (back then immigrants like my grandmother attended Mass every day!) and America all the way!
Now? Well, now it is a completely different story. I don’t know if it’s reimagining my mother, my immigrant grandparents or almost 11 years of publishing and writing for my own paper – InCityTimes – but I am absolutely besotted with America! Cuckoo over the very idea! I adore my country’s fab history! It’s music. Its painters. Its national parks. Its great presidents (FDR, TR, Lincoln, Washington, Kennedy!). And lately … its grand musicals of the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s.
No where can you see America at her finest – her feistiest, her most idealistic, her most artistic and talented – than in American musicals. The melodies, the lyrics, the choreographers, the dancers … all Americans! All American! All first rate! We really were number one back then! In brains, in heart, in spirit! The world looked upon us as a free, brassy, brilliant one of a kind miracle. Buy/rent/watch on TCM the following movies and you’ll see what I mean: “Top Hat/anything starring Fred Astaire,” “An American in Paris,” “Singing in the Rain/anything Gene Kelley,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Oaklahoma,” “South Pacific,” “Gi Gi,” “Show Boat,” “Calamity Jane,” “West Side Story,” “White Christmas,” “Going My Way,” “Guys and Dolls.”
Last night, in honor of Patriot’s Day, I watched the classic American musical “Yankee Doodle Dandy” starring the one and only classic American actor James Cagney! Fantastic!
There he is, James Cagney, a movie tough guy who is no Fred Astaire and can’t even carry a tune (he kinda half speaks/sings the songs), dancing to and singing classic American songs written by another classic American – song writer George Cohan … and he’s brilliant! Cagney’s performance makes you wanna stand up and cheer for our “Grand Old Flag.” And you believe we can lick Hitler because we won’t stop fighting “Til It’s Over, Over There!”!
All these great songs, celebrations of America, written to get us marching and singing. But not progaganda – garbage that was forced from the pen, lies to seduce the masses. These are American love songs written by guys like Cohen, Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hart. Guys who were maybe considered part of America’s underbelly: Italian Americans and Jews whose parents came from Europe. Life was tough but there were opportunities for the industrious and talented! Look old woman from Italy! Your son has grown up to be frank Capra! Where would American musicals and movies be without first generation Americans like Frank Capra, Irving Berlin and George Cohan?
But I digress. LIke I said, in the movie Yankee Doodle Dandy, Cagney is no Fred Astaire; he can’t really dance or even sing! But he is mesmerizing! Ebullient! When you see Cagney strut down the stage and sing/speak Cohan’s songs, you are uplifted! You are bathed in pure spirit, pure American showmanship! And then the topper: as part of the finale, when Cagney as Cohan plays FDR in a skit, and the camera pans in for a close up Cagney/George Cohan looks squarely into the lens and basically tells Adoph Hitler to shove it!
I loved it! And so did the WW II audiences who first saw it! They got up to their feet in movie theatres all over the country and cheered! Here they were in the middle of World War II, up against EVIL incarnate and little tough thug james Cagney – with a hardscrabbe American background like my mom’s and grandma’s – is telling them: We’ll cream Hitler! We will be a free country – forever!
Only in America!
And FDR, Franklin Delano Roosvelt, the president Cagney/Cohan portrays in the skit? Well, my mom still finds it hard to believe her hero was in a wheelchair all those years. Sure, she tells me, everyone knew FDR had had polio, but … he couldn’t walk?! She still doesn’t quite believe the facts. And By God, if you watch, “Yankee Dodle Dandy” (Cagney/Cohan tells his life story to FDR during a visit with the president to receive the Congressinal Medal of Honor) FDR danced across America. Few folks (accept Eleanor!) could keep up!
It is so important to know our history! To tap into our American idealism and remember how great we really are! It just takes hard work, a bit of selflessness, a lot of joy! Watch “Yankke Doodle Dandy” or any Fred Astaire flick or any American musical, and you’ll see just how fantastic America is/YOU are!
Happy Patriot’s Day!