As an American, I’m generally happy living in the UK, which I have done for nearly five years. I don’t miss the guns, the endless politicking, or the aggressive 24/7 marketing. Holidays, however, almost always make me homesick. This harmonica rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner,” performed today in New Jersey, captures so much of what I miss about America in a mere two minutes.
Start with the scene, which is one of the lead-up games of the US women’s national soccer team. There’s an enormous flag, which would make most Europeans wince, or grimace, but still makes me weirdly proud. I am under no illusions about American exceptionalism; our history is a dark and revealing one, whose promise is woefully unrealized. But the US is my country, and sometimes, for a moment, it’s nice to be proud rather than apologetic (for the racism, the guns, the poverty). My dad fought in the Korean War and was a fierce patriot—every grace invoked the sacrifice of our soldiers—and he proudly flew a flag off our deck. I wouldn’t do the same, but I love that he did.
Then there’s the soccer, or football as it’s known here. The UK may have invented the sport, but it is light years behind the US when it comes to the women’s side. The US has Title IX, a law prohibiting discrimination in all federally funded education programs. Title IX opened the floodgates to every town having a local team, run by parents and followed by residents in any given neighborhood. It propelled generations of girls to play. I remember star players like Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain, and the historic 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup they helped win.
I was recently at a conference in Boston, and we drove by a field, at 6pm on a Tuesday, full of kids and parents playing baseball (not soccer, but similar sentiment). It evoked a feeling I do not have here, even though I find myself on the sidelines of many sporting events (netball, cricket, football).
This wonderful and sad piece in the Guardian recalls that it wasn’t always so in England: During two world wars, Preston, in Lancashire, was home to the Dick, Kerr Ladies (1917-1965), “a football team formed at a munitions factory during the first world war to raise funds for wounded soldiers from the western front who were being treated at the town’s military hospital.” The team was wildly popular, often cited as the most successful women’s team ever, and raised the equivalent of millions of pounds in today’s money for the troops. According to the Guardian, on Boxing Day in 1920, the team “hit a peak with a crowd of more than 53,000 filing into Everton’s Goodison Park and a further estimated 14,000 outside, unable to get in.” (Today in the UK, a typical game in the FA Women’s Super League attracts a mere 900.) Months after that match, a few small-minded men ruled that football was “quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.” Women were banned from playing on FA-affiliated pitches. (The UK is trying. It is halfway through its four-year Gameplan for Growth, which aims, among other things, to double the number of women and girls taking part in football in England by July 2020.)
Back to that “Star Spangled Banner” rendition… The song itself is one of beauty, hope, and triumph. We taught our kids the words on a trip to Wales, and my husband, a Brit, teared up at all that it tries to accomplish: Francis Scott Key’s attempt to put America’s determination to song, with a range of 19 semitones: difficult, sharp, aspirational. England’s equivalent is “God Save the Queen,” which includes these lyrics:
God save the Queen!
Send her victorious,
Happy and glorious,
Long to reign over us:
God save the Queen!
Not exactly take-up-arms and fight-to-the-death kind of material.
Then there’s the harmonica and the man playing it: Pete DuPré, a 96-year-old World War II veteran who shows amazing musical skills. I held my breath when he went for the high notes, as it’s not the easiest instrument to play. I went to college in the American West, amidst the majesty of the Rockies. Folk music is seared in my memory as the soundtrack to discovering that region. My world up till then—the US east coast—had felt huge as I traversed up and down for sporting events and college tours. But it is a speck compared to the vast plains of the middle of America. DuPré’s rendition captured all of that: America’s beauty, its promise, its grandeur. For a moment, the disappointment and complexity of today’s United States evaporated for the “bombs bursting in air” that “gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.”