Since Facebook didn’t really exist in 2001, maybe you don’t know that I worked at a guest ranch in northern California. Guest is really just another name for “dude” ranch. That means, of course, people with money pay to come feel like they live out in the middle of the woods. I regaled them with stories of eating squirrel and taught them how to ride horses and shoot a 12 gauge.
I loved it; I loved living in the mountains, far away from everyone. I loved being able to smell sweaty horses and leather late into the night. I loved sitting by the creek flecked with gold bits and listening to the water.
But most of all, I loved talking to all of the people that visited and worked there. What was strange about the workers was that they were mostly foreign. I don’t know how, exactly, but there was an exchange program that got the ranch beautiful people from England, Germany, Poland, Holland, and as far away as Australia and New Zealand. I fell in love with all of them, but a few especially. Our nights were spent around the campfire, drinking local beers, smoking whatever, and telling tales of the silly guests and Sasquatch. I lived and worked there for a total of 15 months.
Again, this was 2001. I was in a hotel in San Francisco with a Polish woman, waking up from a strange night, when she pointed to the t.v. to show me the news. I saw planes flying into buildings. She seemed devastated. I listened closely, something about the World Trade Center. I had no idea what that was. To me, New York was a place I saw in movies. I had no concept of its actual existence. It was a dreamscape, unreal, far away. She was crying and I was watching her cry. I didn’t understand.
What I could understand on the news was that America was under attack. That there might be more planes and more bombs in major cities, so I hauled ass back to the ranch, six hours north, to where I was safe by the fire with my non American friends.
And we talked. And I learned. And it was there, just days earlier that I said angrily that Bush was and asshole and he was going to get us blown up. And dammit if he didn’t.
After that, plane tickets were cheap. I paid 450 dollars for a round trip to Germany. I spent weeks there and some time in Holland and Poland.
It wasn’t until the next summer at the Siskiyou Fair in Yreka California that I experienced something that forever changed me. It was the night of the Rodeo and all I could focus on was getting and keeping her attention. The national anthem started playing, so I stood and put my hand on my heart. She stayed seated and looked at me like I was some kind of freak. “Stand up,” I said, incredibly offended. “Why,” she said, “it’s not my country.”
No one, in my life, had ever remained seated for the national anthem. I didn’t know how to react. Should I immediately cut this person out of my life? But. She had a point. She wasn’t American. If I went to New Zealand and was forced to stand for their anthem, wouldn’t I feel a bit weird? So I told her, if I were with her, in her country, I’d stand. Then I learned that most countries don’t do that. Like. None. And how strange it was for her to see us all stand and singing along, ” O’er the land of the free/and the home of the brave” And what did it mean, anyway? It was in that moment, at the rodeo, that I felt, for the first time, how absurd it was. I’d experienced something like this just a few years earlier, in church. Everyone was saying the words, but no one seemed to listen to what they were saying. And then there’s the pledge I had to recite every day in school, “One nation, under God….”
I sat back down. What was I even saying? Why were we one of the only countries to be so proud of our flag and anthems? It was like…brainwashing.
Later in the week, she and I watched the Fourth of July fireworks together. “It’s so American, ” she said. And it was. I was so American.
In many ways, I am still very American.
That was 15 years ago. I haven’t risen to my feet for a pledge or national anthem since then. Of course, I’m no NFL player. The last time I sat in protest was at Erika’s volleyball game, in a middle school gym, just a few weeks ago.
I was the only one sitting quietly as the song rang out through the tinny speakers.