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Here is an American short story about the national anthem. Please note that I took some liberties with this from the original story that I heard about.
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Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi (1882) is considered by historians to be the first fully typewritten manuscript sent to a publisher. In Mark Twain’s 1904 autobiography, he misattributed this to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
The Land Of The Free – Short Story
Francis Scott Key, an American lawyer, had received news of the very men that he had just gotten to be released from the shackles on a British warship are to be for nothing. The British are to bomb Fort McHenry and start a war with the land that Key called his home. Perplexed by it all, Key went down to tell the released prisoners of the unfortunate circumstances.
“So we are free men, Mr. Key?” A prisoner asked the lawyer, still shaken by the news he received.
“No.” He stared down at the ground, only slightly glancing at the prisoner.
“But I thought you negotiated? I thought the British agreed that we would trade them?”
Just earlier in the day, Key had informed the same American prisoners that he had made a deal with the British commander of the ship, the American prisoners for the British prisoners. The men jumped for joy when they heard of their release. That was before The very same British commander told Key that the British navy is on their way over to blow Fort McHenry, the closest fort to the ships, with all the firepower they had. The prior negotiations were fruitless, for the two countries would be at war soon.
Francis Scott Key sat down on the lone chair in the room only a few feet from the prisoners. He stared off as he spoke. “They are going to bomb the fort ASAP. This was all a formality. The British are going to start another war with America. I told them that the fort was not a military one, that there were women and children there, but they didn’t care. They are to bomb the fort until we surrender.”
“How could this be?” The same prisoner asked.
“The British want that flag down. Once it is down, they will view that as our surrender.”
“So all they need to do is make sure that the flag stays up.” A second prisoner who was listening in said to the first prisoner and Key.
“And how do you expect them to do that, genius? That fort has no guns or weapons. You heard the lawyer-man, we are screwed!”
Key, still down on the whole thing, asked, “If it is all the same to you, I’d prefer to stay down here with you all.”
The first prisoner welcomed the lawyer. “Not a problem, sir. An American is always welcomed here. Plus, who are we kidding? We can’t get rid of you if we wanted to anyway.”
“Yeah.” The second prisoner spoke up. “Plus, what if they keep the flag flowing all night?”
The first prisoner spoke to the second. “Why are you doing that to the poor guy? You see, he is already upset. You don’t have to rub it in like that.”
“Hey, all I am saying is that the flag isn’t down yet. There is still a chance.”
“Ignore him, lawyer-man. I am sure that you did the best you could. I mean, it wasn’t really that good because of what you just said, but you did try.”
The second prisoner said, “Yeah, and what if the flag is still up after all the bombing?”
“Will you shut up?” The first prisoner slapped the second prisoner atop the head, tired of his silly thinking.
Around that same time, the commander of Fort McHenry received the news of the British plans for the night. He called all the men at the fort together to inform them of what was about to happen.
“Now, men, I have some disturbing news. The British navy is set on taking this fort and capturing it. Within the next few hours, there will be a barrage of bombs set upon this very place. They say that they will not stop until we surrender and the flag is down.” He let some silence sink into the air. “I plan to do neither.”
Someone out of the crowded room called out, “So what is your plan then?”
“Me and my assistant have decided on a strategy to keep the flag standing.” Prior to the meeting, the commander and his assistant outlined a horrific way to win the bombing, a strategy that neither was sure the men at the fort would accept or would even work.
Someone else called out, “What are you going to do? Hold it up?”
A person next to the shouter directed towards the commander, “Yeah, you are going to have us keep the flag up as they are bombing it.”
The commander said sternly, “Precisely.”
“You want us to hold up the flag while bombs and cannons are shooting at it? You know my bones break, and my skin bleeds. That is a death sentence!”
His assistant spoke up quietly, “It is for a good cause.”
The commander motioned to his assistant to allow him to speak to the men in the room. “Men, I know that I am asking nothing short of impossible from you. I am asking for your life, not of hard work or discipline but for your being. I claim to not be the Christian god of this world, but I believe that your life here is going towards a cause greater than any one man can claim. If you wish to walk out that door and risk the subjugation of a British rule on our free land, then you be my guest. If you value your life more than the freedom this land gives you, I will not judge you. I understand that some of you are fathers of children and husbands of wives and that you worry about what can happen to them without you. You simply cannot risk death for the life of your loved ones. I understand if you walk out that door now. I, too, am in that dilemma, as I have myself a beautiful wife waiting for me back home. I know that she would think nothing less of me than to put down my life for freedom. I can die in this world, but she can live on, free. I ask you all this, what is life without freedom? Are you truly living if the government or king runs your life? If you must answer to a foreign power and not rule yourself, what life are you leading? If your death could help save this new nation built on every man being equal, would you? I know that I am asking a lot from you men here. I am asking nothing less than your own life. But I only ask this as a way to preserve the freedom that you and I hold dear. I will not allow the British to tell us what to do or who to be. We are Americans, and we are free, and if I have to give my life for that freedom, then so be it.”
No men in the room left. Even those who spoke up earlier didn’t move.
“Very well, there are patriots among us. There is a special place in heaven for all of you, gentlemen. I will let my assistant explain the details of our plan and how we will keep freedom alive.”
The young assistant addressed the group of men on the daring, simple, and dangerous strategy. He instructed them on the details pertaining to how they would keep the flag up.
After the assistant talked to the men, he went back over to his commander. “They accepted the plan. They understand what they are to do.”
“Now I have to answer the tough question of who will go first.” He said with hesitation and fear in his eyes. The assistant didn’t address this issue during the meeting, for no man brought it up, but whoever was to be the first would surely not make it through the night.
“I will go first.” Said the commander.
“Sir? No. You’ll die!”
“I will hold the flag for as long as my body can stand it. Defending freedom, whether it be for only a few minutes or for a lifetime, is always a worthy defense. As Washington said, I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees. This young country is worth dying for. Freedom is worth dying for. Not for only me, but for those who find refuge in this free land. Let the world know that we stood up to the mighty British, not with our firepower or our military strength, but nothing more than the toughness of American hands and freedom in our hearts.”
The assistant accepted that his superior would not take no for an answer. His boss would be the first to hold up Old Glory on that fateful night, and there was nothing he could do to convince him otherwise.
“It’s been an honor knowing you, sir. I will surely be the second one to hold up the flag.”
“No! You can’t. You must stay away from the flag to keep the men organized. You must keep this plan going all night. As the rockets show their red glare, as the bomb burst in the air, you must continue the fight for freedom. Do not abandon your post and keep this place organized. Do you understand? That is a direct order. Instruct the men on how to keep our freedom alive.”
“No buts, you are to be my eyes and ear when I can no longer hold that flag up. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir” He nodded solemnly.
As the night passed and the bombs went off, Key had not stayed still. Every so often, the prisoners would ask him if the flag was still standing. “Tell us about the flag. Is it still standing?” They all wanted to know if it still stood. These men knew that their very lives depended on the impossible, but it was the only hope they had.
And every time he went up the top of the ship, to Key’s amazement, there were flowing colors of red, white, and blue in the smoke. He avoided seeing the British commander on the ship, for the sight of him, made him sick. Did that man know of the attack on the fort? Did he play Key for a fool? How could he be okay with firing upon a civilian fort? How could this happen to the nation that Key loved?
Each time he told the prisoners of the flag’s placement, they all cheered. Even though Key didn’t believe it would last, he did think for a moment that maybe that second prisoner was right. They said that we were to lose when the flag went down, and it is still up. There was still hope, even though it was fleeting and would not last. Eventually, one bomb would hit directly on the flag pole and knock the whole thing down. It is just math, just statistics. As a man of sense and reason, Key accepted the odds.
As the night became morning and Key sat next to the prisoners expecting to be taken prisoner himself, he noticed that the violent cracks and bursts that had filled the night had stopped. For the first few minutes, he considered the lack of sound an excuse for the British navy to reload. After some more time had passed and the loud sounds didn’t continue, he went up deck to see why the noise had stopped.
“Your people are insane.” The British commander said to him, mad to see him and even madder at the result of the night.
Key didn’t know what to make of this comment, whether it was only a British insult of his own Americanness or something else. He saw in the distance a sight he didn’t expect to see; the colors of the flag were still there waving.
After confirming that the bombs had stopped and the fort would not be taken, he made his way over and pondered how the flag stood up all night. How did the flag not fall? Perhaps the British were lying. They must have never hit the flag head-on. But the royal navy is the epitome of warfare. They are the best; in all this fighting, they must have hit the flag at some point? Is there really a way that the most sophisticated navy in all of our world missed a flag so close? My, if that is such the case, perhaps the Lord looks down favorably on this new nation. How is the flag still standing? Despite what my eyes saw, the colors of my nation in the sky, I can’t explain it with any reason. Why is the flag still standing? It should be down. I should be a prisoner. But here I stand, neither.
He entered the fort, filled with bodies and debris from the structures spread across the place. He asked a stranger where he could find the person running the place, and the stranger pointed him towards a broken room, with holes in the wall and broken furniture on the ground. In the room clearly hit by many bombs was a lone individual with their head hanging low.
“Hello. I am Francis Scott Key.” He addressed the stranger sitting down.
He saw the man in tears. “Yeah, what do you want?”
“They say you are the one in charge.”
“Yeah, so. Where were you in all of this? Too good to be here? Now you want to rub it in our face?”
“No, not at all. I was on one of the British ships. I tried to negotiate for the freedom of American prisoners before this all happened.”
“Yeah, you’re one hell of a negotiator, you know that.” The assistant was not in the mood to hear how tough of a night this Key man just had.
“What happened here?” Key asked. “How is that flag standing? I thought….”
He yelled back. “How do you think it is standing! We held it up during the night!” He spoke to himself. “So many good men were lost in the last few hours.”
“No, you mean….”
“Yeah. We took their best shot, and we held it up. Each and every man who held up that flag paid with his life. And did the men quit? Did they run from the bombs? No. They kept going into the hell storm. I only wish I could have joined them myself.”
“My God, I didn’t know. I’m so sorry.”
He cried out once. “Well, we won. Freedom reigns, my old friend, freedom reigns.”
“If there are men like this in our world, then freedom shall always reign.”
Francis Scott Key left the room and later that night would pen the Star-Spangled Banner, the national anthem for the free nation, a reminder and inspiration to all its citizens that the freedom they have was not won through violence or conquest, but sacrifice from a few that paid the ultimate price.
As he sat down to write it, he recalled the words that were the only hope that he and the prisoners had that night. “Tell us about the flag. Is it still standing?”
Did You Know?
‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ became the national anthem by a congressional resolution on March 3, 1931.
This was one the first American piece for this month. We hope you enjoyed it.
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Greg Luti is an editor and blogger on pensandwords.com. His favorite writers are Robert Frost and Charles Bukowski. He enjoys reading up on history, watching comedies, and playing video games, when he is not writing down a few notes for his next piece. He started this blog out of his love for literature and hopes that the reader shares that same passion.
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