Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

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Proof Through the Night

Yesterday, as knicolini explained, we stayed late at the J. After a refreshing family swim, we were headed down the hallway for the front entrance when Skylar noticed the crowd in the gym for the Pro-Am game. Since Kim was on the phone with Susan, it fell to me to dissuade Skylar -- she was already very hungry -- from going inside, even though I desperately wanted to myself. But she was insistent and we ended up staying for the entire first game.

There were plenty of good players, as well as current and former Wildcats. It was nice to see Reggie Geary, even though he made Jason Kidd's games against Arizona awfully difficult. Chris Rogers was impressive. But it was Richard Jefferson that got me excited. I pointed him out to Skylar during the warm-ups -- he's easy to spot with that shaved head -- and explained that he would soon be playing for the United States in the Olympics. She has a sense of what the Olympics are already. And I want them to be as exciting for her as they were for me as a kid. Seeing an Olympian on our "home" court was a special treat.

My late-night ESPN Classic viewing has turned to the highlights of past Olympiads. I didn't watch a single minute of the Atlanta games back in 1996 -- Kim and I were busy with wedding preparations and all the acting out that accompanied them -- but the other night I watched with great interest a weightlifting contest between a Turk and Greek from those games.

There's a bittersweet aspect to watching past Olympics, though, because I can chart the feelings I've had about my country in four-year increments. During the 1972 Summer Olympics I had just turned four and didn't fully grasp what it meant to be an American as opposed to, say, a German or Italian. But I understood that the Olympics were a big deal. Indeed, they constitute my first sports memory. I remember seeing Mark Spitz get a medal on the black-and-white television at our house -- we didn't get color until 1976 -- and that guy with the funny hat winning a race on the color television at my grandparents' house. Unfortunately, those memories are mixed with ones of Jim McKay talking and talking and talking as something bad was happening. I couldn't comprehend the details, but I perceived the dark cloud without difficulty.

In 1976, I was flush with bicentennial fervor, proud to be an American and rooting hard for Bruce Jenner and Dorothy Hamill. 1980 brought the delirium of the greatest upset in Olympic hockey and the anguish of no summer games for the Americans. By 1984, I was beginning to see that the spectacle of the games existed independently of the actual competitions. I remember the juxtaposition of "Up Close and Personal" segments with travelogues about life in a Communist country during the Sarajevo Winter Olympics. It was the Los Angeles summer games that tipped the balance, though. Even though I continued to root for Americans, I sensed that there was something hollow to the event that couldn't be blamed on the absence of most Easterm Bloc countries. When I was an exchange student in Germany from 1986-1987, I was shocked how angry my German friends still were about the propagandistic element to the proceedings. Their training in the history of fascism made them wary of such pumped-up patriotism, particularly in the era of the much-reviled Ronald Reagan.

By the time I came back to the States, something had shifted inside me. I didn't have a television in 1988. But I also made no effort to go to one of the televison-filled restaurants I frequented for other important sporting events. The Ben Johnson controversy seemed to fit my sense of the Olympics perfectly. During the Sydney games in 2000, when I was alone in Tucson awaiting Kim and Skylar's arrival, I could have watched but instead devoted my free time to reading about Australia's poisonous reptiles and spiders.

Now that Skylar is old enough to register major world events, though, I feel a need to return to my childhood ways. The Olympics are exciting and important again. Only now my enthusiasm is underpinned with waves of post-9/11 anxiety. Even though it would be highly unlikely for Al-Qaeda to strike at a time and place when people are preparing for a strike, I can't get those diffuse memories of the Munich trauma out of my mind. Seeing Richard Jefferson on the court at the J, risking injury to please a non-paying crowd of ordinary Tucsonans, I started thinking that the NBA stars who have declined to play in Athens may be more prescient than anyone gives them credit for being. But that made me admire Jefferson for going, despite all that, because he regards it as an honor to be an Olympian.

As thoughts like these raced through my head on the J's bleachers, I suddenly realized that everyone had stood up for the national anthem. Kim has always resisted standing up at baseball games and she clearly had no intention of rising. I stood, then told Skylar to do the same. "Come on, mom, it's time for the 'Star-Spangled Banner'," I said, "everyone has to stand." And Kim did, realizing, I think, that I wanted her to do it for Skylar, for her innocence and idealism.

The guy singing it did a great job, refusing to embellish the melody with unnecessary finery. But it was the girl next to me who really sold the song. Skylar held my hand and sang, loudly, not knowing all the words, but delivering the message with absolute conviction. I'm sure the people around us thought it was cute. For me, though, the moment was too rich with emotion to be reduced to any one adjective.

When we moved away from Pennsylvania, I made a point of singing the national anthem for our house. It was the best way I could think of saying thank you, of paying my respects to my home. In retrospect, the gesture seems strange, maybe even silly. After hearing Skylar sing, "Oh say does tha-at star-spangled ba-aanner ye-et wa-ave," though I realize that my inner patriot is still alive enough to overcome all worries about looking stupid in public. Next time, I think I'll sing along.

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