When I entered first grade at Hampton Elementary in 1962, this country was still riding the wave of patriotism that lifted us out of the second great war. Roosevelt and Truman and Eisenhower were revered household names. The country was still waiting to see how this new kid, Kennedy, from Massachusetts was going to carry on the American tradition. My parents thought he talked funny, but they liked what he had to say.
“We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.”
“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
I grew up in an era that inspired us to love being Americans. Presidents were admired and respected, even if there were disagreements. It was more important to common folks like us to lift the country and carry it forward than it was to whine about personal opinions. America mattered more than any one family or any one city or any one ideology.
It was early morning on the first day of first grade. Miss Betty herded her tiny charges into the room. She gave us our assigned seats at metal desks with wooden tops. We had a cubby underneath the seat for books and papers. The top was ever so slightly slanted, with a slot at the top edge for holding our #2 pencil so it wouldn’t roll off into our laps.
We were all just a little bit nervous. I know I was. The butterflies in my stomach were doing loop-de-loops and blowing smoke like a P51 at the air show. This was a big move. First graders are so much more grown up than kindergarteners. This was the first day of the rest of eternity for us.
She started out. “My name is Miss Betty Gibbs. You may call me Miss Betty.”
I already had that part in the bag. She was no stranger to me since she and Billy Dan went to the same church we did. Knowing her put me at ease on the first day of first grade.
“Welcome to first grade,” she said.
Blake Yates made a funny noise with his mouth, and we all giggled. Miss Betty put a stop to that before you could bat an eye, and we all sat up straight and said in unison, “Yes ma’am.”
“I want everyone to stand quietly beside your desk. Stand at attention and put your right hand over your heart.” You could hear about 50 feet shuffling obediently into position.
“Everyone face the flag and we’re going to say the Pledge of Allegiance together.” She had the words written in perfect print on the left side of the chalk board just under the flag. “I have the pledge written for those of you who might not know it yet. You are expected to memorize the pledge, but for now, you can repeat after me.”
It was only seven years earlier that President Eisenhower signed a bill on Flag Day, June 14, 1954, incorporating the words “under God” into the official pledge of the nation. He was sitting in the same pew where Abe Lincoln had sat for Sunday services at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church when he was inspired to move toward making the change in wording. He spoke clearly about his sentiments.
“From this day forward, the millions of our school children will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural schoolhouse, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty…. In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource, in peace or in war.”
I pledge allegiance: Commitment. Loyalty. Fidelity. These are the notions that define us. The deepest and best in us promises never to give up on his or her country.
To the flag of the United States of America: The red and white stripes and dark blue field of 50 white stars is the visual that reminds us of the blood and bandages and the spirit of sacrifice that built this nation. Red for valor. White for purity. Blue for vigilance. Long may she wave.
And to the Republic for which it stands: The government created by the people and for the people was fraught with challenges, even from the day the Constitution was signed. It was Benjamin Franklin’s plea that won the Continental Congress over.
“When you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views.”
He knew it was far from a “perfect production” but was convinced that this precarious rendering of words “with all its faults” was the better alternative to serve the fledgling country.
One Nation, Under God: You can say what you want about the impact of the American faith in a Creator who endowed us with certain rights and privileges. For sure, few of us have a common stance on the subject. But you’ll never convince me that this country would be standing here today without His providential guidance.
Indivisible: This might just be our weakest link. Ben Franklin was right. We are full of prejudices and selfish views. Division becomes destructive every time we put self-interest ahead of the common good. And if we are not careful, foolish pride with be our downfall. Unless we mean that word when we say it, we become our own worst enemy.
With liberty and justice for all: America has been an experiment for weaving together a fierce sense of independent freedom into the fabric of liberty and justice for nearly 250 years now. To what end? For the reason that a man may not lay claim to his own liberties at the cost of a great injustice to the whole, no more than he can plea for justice to be afforded to his private matters at the expense of a greater liberty for all. I have no solution. I only believe that our pledge to these ideals must remain.
Navy pilot Mike Christian was shot down in 1967 during the Vietnam war. He was being held at the Hanoi Hilton with about 40 other POWs. To boost morale, he made a needle out of bamboo and with scraps of red and white material, he began to stitch a replica of the American flag inside his blue prison shirt. Everyday the men would quietly turn the shirt inside out, hang it on the wall, and say the pledge together.
When the guards discovered the flag, they took it, and beat Mike severely. That same night, with swollen eyes and bruised hands, he took out his needle and began the painful but honored duty of stitching together another flag. He risked everything to pay tribute to a few simple words he memorized in grade school.
When we were done with the pledge to the flag, Miss Betty instructed us to practice our letters by copying down the words from the board. “You’re going to need to know this for the rest of your life.”
Lord, help us all to remember it now.
6 thoughts on “Our Pledge”
Lest we forget, Paul. This is one of your very best.
In my humble opinion, this is one of your best writings. I know the Mike Christian story. It inspires me every time I hear or tell it. Your story is perfect timing and one we all need to read. Thank you so much. May God continue to bless our nation.
Great words, Paul, and they are only matched by the great (comedian)Red Skelton. If you’re never seen it, google his version of the Pledge to Allegiance. It’s blood tingling!
Most excellent! Thank you!!
This is so meaningful for today and we as Americans need to remember every day who we are and hopefully bring our country back to what it was then. Thanks for helping our generation remember just how great it was when we were in school.
This is an excellent reminder of how we lived and thought in the 50’s and 60’s growing up. May God grant us the ability to remember the good in those times and share them with our children. God Bless the the U.S.A.
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