Dedicated to My Dear Friend Luba Al-Kazwini, Who Just Recently Became an American Citizen
Let’s not kid ourselves, 2020 has been a rough year, filled with sadness, division, and hatred. Whether you’re on the Trump Train or are Ridin’ with Biden, at the end of the day, we are all Americans. As a student of both politics and history (I’m real fun at parties, I know), I wanted to share some of my favorite, lesser-known moments in American history that can inspire unity in us all. Don’t throw away any friendships or family members over something as worthless and asinine as politics. Despite what my fellow political junkies may say, it really is not the end-all be-all for most people, and please, stop ruining Thanksgiving with politics. We’re just trying to eat good food until we can manage to lumber ourselves over to the couch to watch some football. Without further ado, here are ten obscure, yet beautifully American things that will make you proud to be an American.
To start this list, I will begin with the greatest American military song ever composed: “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” This inspiring and iconic piece of music was written by poet, suffragette, and abolitionist Julia Ward Howe. She and her husband were inspecting Union Army Camps in Washington D.C. in 1861 when she was inspired to write this now-legendary piece. Slavery is the original sin of this country, and the Civil War was fought to end this evil institution. While America did not invent slavery, every society in history has engaged in the horrific practice, over 620,000 Americans died to end slavery. Since the nation’s founding, there were always strong abolitionists, with my home state of Massachusetts being the first to abolish the practice in its state constitution in 1780. Howe was one of these abolitionists, and the lyrics of her booming and powerful song inspired Union soldiers to fight. My favorite stanza of the song goes like this:
“In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me;
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on!”
The music slowly swells up as the third line is sung, and it inspires such incredible patriotism in any who listen to it. Speaking from personal experience, every time I hear the song, and in particular the lyrics, “as he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,” it makes me want to march down south and retake Dixie. This song’s powerful anti-slavery message and calls to live up to higher morals are so incredibly inspirational, it’ll turn even the most die hard Neo-Confederates into Lincoln-lovers. The best rendition of the song I recommend is the one done by the U.S. Army Field Band. This song truly showcases the beauty of American music, the glory of the Union and the strong American woman who wrote the piece.
Next is the story of popular American president Teddy Roosevelt and his incredible 84-minute speech he gave in Wisconsin in 1912… after being shot in the chest at point blank range. While on the campaign trail, Roosevelt was set to give a speech to supporters in Milwaukee. He left his hotel with his 50-page speech, double folded, and his steel eyeglass case in his breast pocket. As he got up in the back seat of his car to wave to supporters, an unemployed saloonkeeper named John Schrank, who later claimed the ghost of Willaim McKinley told him to do it, shot him in the chest from five feet away with a Colt .38 revolver. Schrank was promptly tackled, and Roosevelt checked to see if he was bleeding from the mouth. He was not, so he told his driver to take him to the hall to give his speech. Once there, he discovered that his speech and eyeglass case had slowed down and partially blocked the bullet, but there was still a dime-sized hole inside the former president. He covered his wound with a handkerchief and went on stage. While this was going on backstage, one of Roosevelt’s bodyguards told the crowd what happened, and some bozo who had clearly never heard of Teddy’s incredible exploits shouted “Fake News” in an eerily modern fashion, to which Roosevelt responded by showing the audience his blood-soaked shirt and ushered this famous quote, “Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot—but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.” This crazy cowboy then went on to give an 84-minute speech with a bullet lodged in his chest. Roosevelt is the quintessential American legend, and he deserves his place on the greatest mountain of all time. If that doesn’t inspire an intense patriotic flame inside of you, then are you really an American?
Up next is one of the most unusual, inspiring, and unknown moments from the Second World War: The Battle for Castle Itter. Some backstory is needed here first for things to make sense. Schloss Itter is a castle in Austria that was taken by Germany in 1943 and converted into a prison, specifically one for French VIP prisoners of war, including former French prime ministers Édouard Daladier and Paul Reynaud, tennis star Jean Borotra, and Marie-Agnès Cailliau, sister of Free French Leader Charles de Gaulle, among others. By May 3, 1945, the German guards at the castle left, and the prisoners who were left there took up arms from the weapons room and sent a Czech cook, Andreas Krobot, to get help, which he found in German Major Josef Gangl, who was working with the Austrian Resistance against the Nazis. Gangl then took a small force of Wehrmacht soldiers and, white flag in hand, surrendered to the American 36th Infantry Division, led by Captain Jack Lee and asked for their assistance to free the French VIPs. What followed was the only time during the war where Americans and Germans fought side-by-side, as Waffen-SS units surrounded the castle in an attempt to reclaim it and the prisoners inside. Lee parked his Sherman tank at the entrance, and the American and German force, accompanied by the French prisoners who refused to hide, held off 150+ Waffen-SS troops until they were nearly out of ammunition. Borotra offered to vault the castle walls, run past the Waffen-SS strongpoints, and carry a letter to the 142nd Division of the U.S. Army. They did so successfully, allowing the remaining 100 SS troops to be surrounded and captured by the American forces. This bizarre moment in history shows how the Americans were willing to risk life and limb mere days before the war ended just to save the lives of the French prisoners. They also were willing to work with their enemies in the Wehrmacht to kick Nazi ass, and there is nothing more satisfying than killing Nazis.
The next story is about no one’s favorite president, Gerald Ford, but this may change people’s minds. President Ford attended the University of Michigan and was the football team’s MVP during the 1934 season. It was during this season when the Wolverines played Georgia Tech, but there was a problem: the Yellow Jackets refused to play any team that fielded a Black player and would not play Michigan unless they benched Willis Ward, the team’s only African-American player. This did not sit well with Ward’s best friend, the star lineman named Gerald Ford. The two had been best friends since freshman year and roomed together on road trips, and, once he heard that his best friend would not be allowed to play, the team’s best player went to coach Harry Kipke and said, “I quit.” It wasn’t until Ward himself told Ford, “You need to play, and you need to pound them” that Ford finally decided to play, but only for his friend and for justice. Ford went on to do exactly what Ward asked of him when a Georgia Tech lineman started yelling racist insults at the Wolverines, to which Ford replied by blocking him so hard as to knock him out of the game on injury, saying to him, “That was for Willis.” Michigan won the game, and Ford later became President of the United States. While not many think of him today, he ought to be remembered as a champion of civil rights, as he would go on to be during his political career, inspired by his friend Willis. President Ford shows us that no matter anyone’s skin color, we can all be friends, work together for a better America, and stand up for what’s right, and that is something to be proud of.
While Gerald Ford is well known, this country boy from Knoxville, Tennessee, is not. Roddie Edmonds was a young, Methodist, Southern boy turned Master Sergeant in the U.S. Army during World War II. During the Battle of the Bulge in December of 1944, Edmonds and the rest of the 106th Infantry Division were captured by the Germans and sent to a POW camp called Stalag IX-B. As the highest-ranking NCO, he was placed in charge of the 1,275 American prisoners. On the first day in the camp, a German officer spoke out over the intercom and said only Jewish Americans were to come out at the morning roll call in an attempt to slaughter them as part of the Reich’s Final Solution. Edmonds told his men they weren’t going to do that, as the Geneva Conventions only required the name, rank, and serial number of soldiers to be given out. As such, they all came out to roll call the next day, and this angered the Nazi officer who shouted at Edmonds that they couldn’t all possibly be Jewish. Edmonds stared evil dead in the eye and said, “We are all Jews here.” Furious, the Nazi commandant put his Luger to Edmonds head and screamed at him, “You will have your Jewish men step forward or I will shoot you on the spot.” In an incredible showing of loyalty to his men and American heroism, Edmonds replied, “If you shoot, you’ll have to kill all of us, and you will have to stand for war crimes after we win this war.” The commandant backed down, and all the men lived and were able to go home. In a rather stunning display of humility, Edmonds never told anyone what had happened, not even his son. It wasn’t until 2009 when his son tracked down Lester Tanner, a Jewish soldier who served with Edmonds and was there that fateful day, that Rev. Christopher Edmonds found out about his father’s heroism. In 2015, Edmonds became the first, and only, American soldier to be honored as a “Righteous Among the Nations” by the State of Israel, an honor given to those who risked their lives to protect Jewish people during the Holocaust. His story inspires us all as Americans to stand up for the rights of all people, come together as Americans, regardless of religion or any other differences, and show humility, even when being prideful could lead to greater benefits.
Stepping back from the 20th Century, we find ourselves in the early 19th Century with possibly the most incredible and inspiring teenage girl on the continent: Sacagawea. While many people know of Sacagawea, she does grace the $1 coin after all, the exact details of her exploits are usually beyond the scope of the elementary school classes where her story is taught. Born in 1788, she was the daughter of a Shoshone chief and was later sold to a French Canadian fur trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau, a pedophile and wife-beater who even Lewis and Clark were not fond of, calling him “the most timid waterman in the world.” Unfortunately for her, she was married to, and lived with, him in what is today North Dakota. In 1804, the Lewis and Clark Expedition arrived in the area and hired Charbonneau and his wife, who was 16 and pregnant at the time, to be their interpreters, as Sacagawea spoke Shoshone. The group set off and traveled 8,000 miles on foot from North Dakota to Oregon, with baby Jean Baptiste being born along the way and carried in a papoose for the entirety of the journey by Sacagawea herself. Sacagawea proved more than vital on the expedition, with her and her baby showing any native tribe that the expedition was peaceful in nature and not a war party. She also helped the expedition acquire food in the form of berries and nuts, and she was able to interpret Shoshone with the Native Americans they encountered along the way. Finally, when the group was crossing a river, the boat Charbonneau was helming overturned and began filling with water. Being the incredibly cowardly and pathetic man that he was, he stood there and did nothing to stop the boat from filling with water until a shipmate threatened to shoot him if he continued to be useless. Fortunately, Sacagawea dove into the water and rescued what Lewis described as, “almost every article indispensably necessary to further the views, or ensure the success of our enterprise,” proving the teenage girl could do exactly what her failure of a husband could not accomplish. In the end, the journey was successfully completed, and Sacagawea returned home, but sadly, she died of an unknown illness in 1812 at the age of 24. On a more positive note, her son Jean Baptiste, who accompanied her on the entire journey, went on to have a much better life than his mother. In 1809, William Clark invited the family to live with him in St. Louis, and, while they did originally, eventually Toussaint and Sacagawea moved back to North Dakota but left Jean Baptiste in the care of Clark, who had grown fond of the child. Clark paid for his education at expensive private schools, and, after Sacagawea died, he gained custody of the child. Jean Baptiste later went on to live a fulfilling life, learning over five languages and living with a German prince with whom he traveled Europe with before coming back to America and spending the rest of his life as a mountain man. Both Jean Baptiste and Sacagawea’s stories are inspiring tales of Native American resilience, skill, and achievement in a society that did not treat them equally, and Sacagawea’s story is inspiring to women everywhere, as she was able to cross the continent, child in hand, and was able to consistently outshine her horrific husband and save the day for the expedition.
This next story shows how anyone can make it in America, and how anyone can be a noble hero, no matter who they are. Born a slave in 1838 in Crawford County, Arkansas, Bass Reeves had nothing. He worked as a field hand and, in 1846, his master moved him to Grayson County, Texas, where he would work in the burning sun under brutal conditions until 1863, when the 6’2 Reeves escaped to Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma, where he learned many different Native American languages and learned how to shoot, and damn well at that. Following the Emancipation Proclamation, he bought a farm in Arkansas where he lived with his wife and ten children. A new federal court was opened right near where he lived in 1875 to combat the lawlessness in Indian Territory, and, thanks to his knowledge of the area and the many languages there, he was recruited as the first Black U.S. Deputy west of the Mississippi. Reeves was known for being able to shoot someone from over a quarter-mile away with his .44 Winchester rifle, taking up various disguises to get the drop on perps, and for hunting down the vile scum that perpetrated lynchings. He was so good at his job that he completely outshined the competition, bringing in 12-15 outlaws at a time while the most other deputies could muster was 4-5. Over his long career, he managed to arrest over 3,000 outlaws, including his own son, and killed at least 14 criminals with his legendary quickdraw. Reeve’s 35-year career as a lawman is theorized to have been the inspiration for the Lone Ranger, and it’s no surprise to see why. Reeves showed how anyone could make it in America, and, while he fought against virulent racism his whole life, in the end, he is the one who is remembered fondly by history as a hero of the Wild West and should serve as an inspiration for minorities across America. Not even the most horrific oppression could keep Bass Reeves from rising up and dishing out justice, and his story is one of the most empowering and inspirational of them all. While many African-Americans turn to fictional heroes like Black Panther as inspiration, they need not look any further than this real-life hero who fought for justice and more than proved himself as the hero the Wild West, and Black America, needed.
What’s America’s favorite pastime? Baseball? Eating apple pies? No, it’s hating Congress, and rightfully so. What else do Americans love? Music, and in the 1980s, rock and roll was incredibly popular, but it was causing some controversy. This led to the founding of the Parents Music Resource Center in 1985 by what was dubbed “The Washington Wives,” the wives of four powerfully connected men in D.C., most notably, Tipper Gore, wife of future Vice President Al Gore. Their goal was to combat music that they saw as harmful to children, have the so-called “Filthy Fifteen,” popular songs by artists such as Madonna, Prince, and Twisted Sister, taken off the air, and create a parental advisory sticker for albums. Three singers were invited to speak at the Congressional hearings: legendary “Country Roads” singer John Denver, iconic guitarist Frank Zappa, and lead singer for Twisted Sister Dee Snider. While both Denver and Zappa gave important and excellent testimonies, Snider’s was by far the most entertaining. While both Denver and Zappa showed up to the hearings in suits and cleaned up, Snider strutted in wearing a sleeveless jean jacket, a Twisted Sister tank top, tight jeans, cowboy boots, sunglasses, eye shadow, and his big, blonde hair on full display. He did not hide who he was, and he then proceeded to dunk all over Congress. First, he made it clear that he was a married father, a practicing Christian, and he did not drink, smoke, nor do drugs, deflecting any possible allegations against him personally. Then, he got a serious rise out of Al Gore, who was on the committee, when he completely debunked Tipper’s claim that the Twisted Sister Song “Under the Blade” was sexual in nature and about sadomasochism and bondage. Snider said that the song was actually written for his bandmate Eddie Ojeda, who was having surgery for the removal of throat polyps, and that the lyrics about being tied down and afraid under the blade described how people felt going into surgery, like they could not escape and the feeling of terror that ensued. Snider then said, “I can say categorically that the only sadomasochism, bondage, and rape in this song is in the mind of Ms. Gore,” leaving Senator Gore and the entire room quiet until Gore simply responded, “Yeah,” and moved on.
Next, Snider addressed his song “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and its position on the Filthy Fifteen list due to there being supposedly violent lyrics. He called out the PMRC by saying that they must have confused the lyrics and the music video, as the lyrics had no violence. He described the music video as “simply meant to be a cartoon with human actors playing variations on the Roadrunner/Wile E. Coyote theme, Each stunt was selected from my extensive personal collection of cartoons.” Next, Snider went after Tipper Gore again for a claim she made about Twisted Sister merchandise, saying, “You look at even the t-shirts that kids wear and you see Twisted Sister and a woman in handcuffs sort of spread-eagled.” Snider then responded by saying it was a total lie, and that, “Not only have we never sold a shirt of this type; we have always taken great pains to steer clear of sexism in our merchandise, records, stage show, and personal lives. Furthermore, we have always promoted the belief that rock and roll should not be sexist, but should cater to males and females equally.” Al Gore tried to then claim that his wife was actually referring to two separate t-shirts, but no one believed what he was slinging. The disgruntled senator then tried to go after Snider for his fan group, SMF Fans of Twisted Sister, and asked Snider what that stood for. He replied, “It stands for the Sick Mother Fucking Fans of Twisted Sister,” to which Gore condescendingly asked, “Is this also a Christian group?” to which Snider replied, “I do not believe profanity has anything to do with Christianity, thank you,” shutting down his entire argument in one fell swoop.
Finally, the committee called into question Snider’s parenting skills and asked him how he could tell what music to keep his underaged son from listening to without the parental advisory sticker they were fighting for. He gave them three options, saying, “I know that when I see an album cover with a severed goat’s head in the middle of a pentagram between a woman’s legs, that is not the kind of album I want my son to be listening to. If I read… a title called “If the Kid Can’t Make You Come,” whatever it is, I realize that is a sexually explicit song. By just looking at the cover, looking at… the titles, that should cover just about all bases. The few albums that do not express their intentions on the cover or in the song titles, I think a parent could take it home, listen to it. And I do not think there are too many retail stores that would deny them the ability to return the album for something different.” He rounded off his beating of Congress by responding to Gore’s question of whether it was reasonable for parents to have to sit down and listen to the albums themselves to determine if it was appropriate, saying, “Being a parent is not a reasonable thing. It is a very hard thing. I am a parent and I know.” In the end, Dee Snider absolutely brutalized Congress and made America proud by showing the stuck up politicians who’s boss. He is a father of four and is still married to his wife, which is something Gore can’t say himself, and his song “We’re Not Gonna Take It” lives on as an incredibly popular rebellion anthem to this day.
Next is the story of Daniel Inouye, a second-generation Japanese-American, known as Nisei, who fought valiantly during World War II. Growing up in Hawaii, he faced many hardships of racism, especially after the attack on Pearl Harbor, but he volunteered to join the army and was drafted to the all-Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team. They were not allowed to fight in Japan out of fear that they would aid the Japanese, so they were sent to the Italian front, and it was there where Inouye would earn himself the Medal of Honor and the Purple Heart. During the assault on Colle Musatello, Captain Inouye’s squad was being pinned down by machine-gun fire, and they desperately needed to take out the three machine gun nests. Inouye stood up to make a move for the first nest and was shot in the stomach, but he powered through, Thompson submachine gun in one hand and a bag of grenades in the other, and took out the first nest. He then rallied his troops to take out the second nest, which they achieved just before Inouye collapsed due to blood loss. This mad lad then proceeded to crawl his way to the third bunker and, right when he raised his arm to throw his final grenade, an enemy soldier launched a rifle grenade at him which hit him right in the elbow, but thankfully, it didn’t detonate and kill him instantly. However, it did travel fast enough to tear his arm off, leaving his severed arm to fall to the ground while still clutching the live grenade. His squad tried to help him, but he told them to stay back in case the grenade in his severed hand went off. He then somehow managed to get the grenade out of his former right arm and into his left hand, where he threw it miraculously through the tiny firing hole in the bunker, avenging his hand. He then stood up and took another enemy down with him, before finally being shot in the leg, his fifth injury, and rolling down the hill before passing out. He awoke to his squad surrounding him and saying they should retreat before he yelled at them and told them to keep pushing without him, saying, “Nobody called off the war!” The war was soon won, and Inouye later went on to not only be honored for his heroic and tough-as-nails actions, but he also became a senator from Hawaii from 1962-2012. His heroic actions inspire all Americans to show great courage, overcome adversity, and achieve anything, despite any limitations they may face due to their race, ethnicity, or disability.
Our final story is that of quite possibly the most insane and hard-core man to ever grace this nation: John Paul Jones. Jones spent his childhood on the seas, doing all sorts of naval work and traveling between Europe and the Americas. As a true Scotsman, he hated the English, and once he arrived in what would become the United States in 1773 after fleeing the island of Tobago for killing a mutinous sailor on his ship in self-defiance, he very quickly began to sympathize with the American cause. Once the Revolutionary War broke out a few years later, Jones immediately signed up for the Continental Navy and became the captain of a sloop called Providence in 1776, which he immediately used to capture 16 British ships in one trip. In 1778, he sailed to Great Britain and attacked the town of Whitehaven and then launched raids all along the coast of the United Kingdom, spooking the British into thinking the American navy could reach their shores and proving himself to be a general nuisance to the British, so much so that they even took to calling him “Paul Jones the Pirate,” which I don’t have to tell you why that’s so awesome. Jones’ greatest victory, however, came in 1779, when his frigate, the Bonhomme Richard, named in honor of his best friend and Founding Father Ben Franklin (the ship was a converted French merchant ship and named after the French title of Franklin’s almanac, Poor Richard’s Almanack) intercepted a British merchant fleet. The Bonhomme Richard and another American ship named the Pallas fought against the two British warships guarding the fleet, the Serapis and the Countess of Scarborough. During the brutal three hour battle, Jones rammed the Serapis and tied the two ships together, after which they fired cannons into each other for two hours. The British captain called out to the Americans, asking if they were willing to surrender, to which Jones thunderously yelled back, “I have not yet begun to fight!” Finally, after an American grenade blew up the below deck of the Serapis, the British surrendered, but unfortunately, the Bonhomme Richard was too damaged and waterlogged to sail, so Jones took the helm of the Serapis and brought his ships to the Netherlands, where he faced a serious issue. He lost his ship’s ensign, or the flag that denotes what nationality a ship is, and entering a foreign port without one would be illegal and would denote him as a pirate. The British ambassador to the Netherlands said exactly this and wanted him tried as a pirate. Fortunately, the Dutch were just as opposed to the British as the Americans, and they quickly drew up and created a flag based on descriptions of what the American flag looked like, and they came up with what is now called the Serapis flag. After the war, and at the encouragement of his friend Thomas Jefferson, Jones was invited by Catherine the Great of Russia to assist her in fighting the Turks in the Black Sea, which he did. He later became a chevalier in France and eventually fell ill in Paris and died. The French government, knowing the Americans would want their naval hero returned, preserved his body in an alcohol-filled lead casket until finally, in 1905 after 113 years, his body was autopsied and confirmed to be him, as he was so well preserved. President Teddy Roosevelt then sent 11 war ships to retrieve the body from France and bury Jones in the U.S. Naval Academy Chapel in Annapolis, where he remains to this day. John Paul Jones is the father of the American naval tradition, and his story should inspire all Americans to be proud of this courageous sailor who fought like a mad man for the American dream of independence, and his story shall never be forgotten.
Let’s not forget these ten incredible historical stories of Americans of all walks of life who overcame adversity, stood up for American values, did things to make all of us proud and inspired all of us to be the best possible people we can be. Hopefully, this has opened your eyes to some incredible moments in American history, and perhaps even piqued an interest in the subject. At the end of the day, we are all Americans, and our common history is the one thing that unites us, no matter our race, religion, ethnicity, gender, age, or anything else. So remember this history, and don’t let politics divide us as a people. We are all Americans, and that is something to be proud of.