A crusty old couple in a northern Indiana bar, a young lady of some elegance in a Washington, D.C., office and a young German Jewish immigrant, all separated by a full century and joined inextricably by the few words of a song that's somewhere between an anthem and a hymn.
We shall start at the bar 30 years ago. Sarge's Bar, it was called; still is, although the Sarge is long gone. We're in Mongo, a sort of depressing town of 105 souls tucked away in northern LaGrange County in the far northeast corner of the state, along the bank of the Pigeon River.
The Sarge was Wesley Frye, a World War II veteran of the Army Air Corps, tail gunner on a B29 bomber in the Pacific theater. He was married to his wife, Loretta, forever, and together they ran the bar and grill in a room decorated by an American flag on one wall, a photo of the Sarge's plane and crew on another and a portrait of President Franklin Roosevelt on the third.
Along the wall, a juke box of the ancient variety: Neon tubing, 78 rpm records and a coin slot that accepted only dimes. And on that juke box, somewhere between Patti Page's “Tennessee Waltz” and something by Eddie Fisher was Kate Smith's iconic recording of “God Bless America,” the hymn and anthem that came from the mind and heart of Irving Berlin, that German Jewish immigrant who gave so much shape and form to American culture for half a century.
Anyway, when you patronized Sarge's bar, as some of us did so many years ago, it was understood that sometime between the first beer and “last call,” two or three or four patrons would plunk in their dime and punch the key summoning Kate Smith's song. And when it began, all commotion would halt and the Sarge and his bride, Wes and Loretta Frye, would step to the center of the room and lead the congregational singing of “God Bless America.” For even the most cynical of us, a moment to be remembered half-a-life later.
Fast forward a few years to a short-term job I had at USA Today newspaper in Washington, an office on the 22nd floor overlooking the Potomac River and the Lincoln Memorial. My boss was a young lady of hoity-toity upbringing and education. My part of America was fly-over country for her. He name was – still is – Mary Ellin Barrett, a copy editor and intellectual and aware of things around us that blew right past me.
When I finally connected all the dots – and she had no interest in so doing – I figured out that my boss, the lady with whom I had a daily cup of coffee and several conversations, was the granddaughter of that little German Jewish immigrant of 75 years earlier. She was the granddaughter of Irving Berlin, of which she was proud but in no way boastful. Everybody is the granddaughter of somebody, right?
So I had my recollections of Sarge and Loretta at attention in the barroom in Indiana and I had my daily coffee with the blood kin of the great composer. Two degrees of separation and all that.
But so what?
And now, this summer, this July of 2018, I found my own little way of making it all matter, at least to me. It was exactly 100 years ago this year – the war-torn summer of 1918 – that the immigrant Jewish boy, Israel Beilin, had grown up to become composer and lyricist Irving Berlin and had written “God Bless America” for a military musical revue – and the song didn't make it into the show.
He put the song on the shelf, where it languished for 20 years, until, with another war and patriotic fervor looming, he retrieved it in 1938 and offered it to a young lady with a titanic voice: Kate Smith.
Immigrant boy in a strange land, briefly separated from his parents and family on arrival in New York, educated, assimilated into American life, made the most of every opportunity to grow his talent and contribute to his adoptive land.
Sounds like something ripped from the front page, perhaps.
Irving Berlin's daughter, also Mary Ellin Barrett, the mother of my former colleague, wrote of her father years ago that “It was the land he loved. It was his home, sweet, home. He, the immigrant who had made good, was saying thank you.”
Maybe today, maybe in small town bars and big city offices and hastily constructed detention camps for separated children and maybe on our smartphones and MP3 players and even on Facebook and Twitter, it would be nice to pause for a little “God Bless America.”
Ed Breen is the retired assistant managing editor for photos/graphics at The Journal Gazette. He wrote this as a commentary for WBAT-AM in Marion.