“What is America to me,
A name, a map, or a flag I see,
A certain word, democracy……”
These were the words we sang out during the early horror days of WWII in the auditorium of PS 97 in Brooklyn along with Frank Sinatra’s recording of, “What is America to me?” As young as we were, we meant each and every word we belted out. And now, years later, l play it on my Amazon Echo and cry. And I play it often. It’s a sad reminder of where this country is now. We are split, broken, disunited, angry, hateful towards one another and growing more apart as the calendar pages fly off into space. There’s no end in sight. Back then, in the early 40’s, things were different. All of our neighbors had brothers, cousins and uncles out there somewhere in places we’d never heard of, fighting, all together, for our freedom. We were joined together by forces unseen. My buddies, Philley Bitetto, Billie McHugh, both Catholic and I a Jew, agreed that when the time came, we’d all enlist together and fight side by side. We meant it. Who cared if we worshipped from different books. We were all proud first generation Americans and ready to give our lives for our country. Joey Pinto, my next door neighbor did just that in the Pacific.
“What is America to me
The house I live in
A plot of earth, a street
the grocer and the butcher
And the people that I meet….”
Look where we are today. Citizenship is meaningless. Back then we all knew of Ellis Island where our parents were checked out a million different ways before they were even permitted to set foot on the sanctified land of America. They waited, studied, memorized, attended night school, all to stand with their hands raised on high to swear allegiance to America. Proud people they were. They asked for nothing but just the freedom to have the opportunities to do their best, to achieve, to show the natives that they appreciated being taken in. Not necessarily accepted, but just taken in and left to their own resources to blend in. I was forbidden to speak Yiddish in our two bedroom, one bath apartment that housed five. We were Americans! And to prove it we would speak, read and write English and celebrate American holidays better than anyone else! We’d show them that we could be even more American than those who welcomed us in. We’d go to school and learn, graduate to higher levels and prosper in the environment that gave us these liberties. And we did, with great appreciation.
“The children in the playground
The faces that I see
All races and religions
That’s America to me.”
Now we are encouraged to be at one another’s throats. Presidential candidates refuse to denounce the bigots within their own party, ones they sit with in Congress. The specter of religious hatred now lurks among our leaders. People proudly display symbols of the nations of their origins: places from which they fled for their lives. They burn the Stars and Stripes. They resent the land that gave them refuge. Now presidential hopefuls have hearkened to these ingrates. They solemnly promise they will do away with the gold cup of citizenship. They will remove that banner of achievement. They will give it away. to make it meaningless. The dilution of America by making all who want to be Americans……Americans.
“The town I live in
The street, the house, the room
The pavement of the city
Or the garden all in bloom
The church, the school, the clubhouse
The million lights I see
But especially the people
-Yes, especially the people
That’s America to me.”
I play that song frequently. I listen to the words. they mean something to me. They remind me that we were once a nation proud, strong and united. I pray that that one day, kids, once again will sing these words, understand them and walk out of the auditorium, hand in hand as we did back during the ’40’s.
(“The House I Live In” Lyrics by Louis Allen, Music by Earl Robinson 1943)