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This Dec. 7, 2011 file photo shows the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. This popular site at Pearl Harbor is actually a grave, a resting place for crew members who died in the Pearl Harbor attack of Dec. 7, 1941. Visitors can see it on a first-come, first-serve basis, and many do to see a significant piece of history and pay respects to those who died. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia, file)

He was an elite pilot – with firm beliefs about a few things. He was a family man during a time when being a family man may have meant something a little different from what it means to be a “family man” now. In early December that year, his wife was pregnant with their first, and only child.

He may not have known about that at the time…

A chill wind blew that December. Cold air hit him like a slap, and the wind probably felt as if it was filled with shrapnel. It was – the day after…

The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor – through the ball-bearing rain, he marched straight down to the Armed Forces recruiter, stopped to give him “what for” – and then straightaway, he enlisted.

A few days later he was a Navy pilot. And six months after that – the aircraft carrier boasting his warplane was shelled by enemy gunfire. He ran out to his plane and was climbing aboard when the whole runway shook violently, rocked by enemy bomb blasts.

He was later discovered laying haphazardly below his plane, still clinging to the bottom rung of steps leading up to the cockpit of his aircraft. But he was alive…

Interestingly, he went on to live for another 62 years – most of it in various VA hospitals across the country – but for a few days here, and a few months there, when he was well enough, he’d be allowed to go stay at home for a little while. Funny thing, yeah – they didn’t know as much about head injury back then as they do now…

So – he kinda gave his life for this country.

His country.

He gave it – his life, eagerly – for citizen rights – to say, “Hey! I do not appreciate you doing this, or that – to me.” For free speech. For the right to strike, in passive protest to unjust or oppressive actions, or systems, or rules.

He gave his life eagerly – in exchange for the best hope for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – for you and me.

And, he gave his life for people’s freedom to be themselves – to stand up, or sit down, or kneel, or look away in indifference – during the national anthem.

He is one of many reasons – why we are free.

Ohhhh, now, yeah – He knew the score.

That he might die. Or, that he might have to sacrifice his life. When danger struck too close to his home, he did not hesitate. He immediately set out to preserve – the land of the free and the home of the brave…

So, does that failure to hesitate – does that make him a hero?

By today’s standards, probably not. He lived a very unceremonious life. Years and years and years growing into decades upon decades – in the hospital. Subjected to all manner of treatment, where, at times – the treatment was worse, or made him feel worse, than did his injury. One day his adult son had come to visit him, only to discover that his leg was broken. When his son asked about how long it had been like that, he said, “Oh, about a week.”

He’d been walking around on a broken leg for a week. In the hospital. So yeah – for most all of those 60+ years, his was an unceremonious existence. Being a hero was not something he even thought about, let alone actually considered.

But ohhhh – he loved his sports! And, he loved the national anthem! So, did that make him patriotic? Y’know – with the national anthem being played before games – he would never miss the chance to salute – even if it was the national anthem being played on the TV or over the radio! Given that he was hurt like he was – he probably would have really appreciated how the national anthem being played at sports games actually got started. You’ve heard that story, right?

In September of 1918 the World Series was being played between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs. Given that World War 1 was still going on at the time, there were several fans at the games who also happened to be wounded war veterans.

Interestingly, it was September 11th

September 11, 1918 – and the start of a World Series game was being delayed. Yup. It was all about money – even back then. The players for the Red Sox and Cubs were unhappy, like, straight-up dissatisfied, because from their point of view, they were not getting enough of the “purse,” – they wanted more of the total amount of money that was being brought in by their participation in the World Series.

So – they decided to strike. Yup. Right there. Work stoppage. Right before the game. Talk about seizing the moment… The lights are on. The umpires are ready. The fans in the stands are ready. But the players – they refused to take the field. The same ready fans in the stands – are getting impatient…

Thank goodness, though, for the bleachers, huh!?! As the fans grew restless, there was frantic negotiating taking place – under the bleachers. After about an hour, the players finally agreed to play. Were they getting a raise right there – Johnny-on-the-spot? No. So why’d they agree to play – was it because there was a promise to pay? Well, maybe, but that’s not why they played…

The players agreed to play in that World Series Game, on September 11, 1918, for the sake of the vets. One Red Sox player said, “[Alright] we’ll play…for the sake of the wounded sailors, and soldiers, who are in the grandstands.”

Eager to capture the moment, or simply struck by a patriotic fever – the owner of the Red Sox had the band play, yup, you guessed it – the Star-Spangled Banner! It was the first time the song is known to have been played before a ball game…

The flash of delight across the faces of the wartime fans was memorable. They stood hurriedly to their feet. Took off their hats out of respect for the soldiers and sailors – and sang along!

#ohmigoshhowawesome @Yup, there you have it! The tradition born new, then.

And, now? So, well, yeah – every single time I hear the national anthem, I think about that pilot. The guy who ran down and enlisted the day after Pearl Harbor. So I can have freedom. But –

Maybe, I should be ashamed? Because, well – I don’t ever think about his 60+ years in the hospital. I just think about him. And the times I got to see him. He was my grand-father. His name was Bill.

Sláinte! And Cheers! To freedom. To all the reasons we are free! And to all the Bills in our lives, who sacrificed theirs, so that we could figure out that patriotism does not equal equality, but that when we are patriotic, we share equally.

Source: Beyer, R. (2003). The greatest stories never told. Harper Collins: New York.

By Dr. Rodney J. Blackman

Dr. Rodney J. Blackman is the Chair of Recreation Management at the United States Sports Academy, and can be reached at rblackman@ussa.edu.

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