The Star Spangled Banner
by Matt Mattheisen
It’s been a tradition ever since I started teaching guitar, to show students how to play the Jimi Hendrix version of the "Star Spangled Banner." In every instance, however, it was a student that made the request to learn the song versus me mandating it as a part of the curriculum. Being a sentimentalist, that has always warmed my heart.
There are criticisms of Jimi’s rendition of our national anthem. It’s not a traditional reading and he barely plays a quarter of the song's famous melody. In between various sections of the anthem he mixes in improvisational pentatonic runs, dive bomb tremolo and feedback manipulation. Overall, it’s quite a cacophony of sound. But, as with so much that Hendrix played, it’s wonderfully soulful as well as being wild all at the same time. The song has always been a joy to teach.
There are other patriotic traditions besides my teaching of the Hendrix "Star Spangled Banner" that I’ve been a part of that have not been without their liabilities.
My family and I live on a recreational lake north of the Twin Cities. Ever since I can remember the city has shot off fireworks from the public beach to culminate the Fourth of July festivities. Almost everyone who lives on the lake takes their boats out to watch the fireworks from the water. Watching them go off directly above you with the colors and light reflecting off of the lake is quite a sight. With the popularity of the event, there are so many boats out on the lake that evening that one could walk across from one side of the lake to the other by just stepping from boat to boat without ever risking falling in. Not wanting my family to miss the experience, I take our pontoon out as well but like Hendrix’s version of the "Star Spangled Banner," the event turns out to be a little wilder than expected.
I’m a nervous guy by nature so I don’t necessarily whistle through the experience, as I perhaps should. To begin with, to get to where the fireworks are set off I have to maneuver my 22-foot long pontoon through two slim channels roughly the width of three boats. Problem is, one out of three boats maneuvering through those same channels are being navigated by a Cap’n liquored to the gills. Boats will speed by you creating a wake that rocks you side to side which makes getting through the channels even more harried. During the drive I also have to constantly make sure my children keep their feet, hands and head on the boat until we arrive at an open spot to anchor. Whenever we’re on the boat, the kids become like dogs being taken for a ride in a car. They’ve got their heads and tongues hanging out in the wind, drooping over the side of the railing staring at the water or hanging off the back of the boat watching the engine kick up spray.
Finding an open spot to anchor is often difficult. The fireworks start at 10:00 but most people start looking for a place to anchor between 8:30 and 9:00. I don’t feel like leaving two hours before the festivities begin so we slowly drift around the lake at 9:45 looking for a place to settle. We invariably get looks from people on other boats as if we just walked into church 45 minutes late.
Anchoring itself is an art. If not done properly we could drift into someone else’s boat. Several years ago a group of revelers drifted into our boat midway through the fire work show and my kids got a chance to hear new combinations of swear words and sexual innuendo that I was hoping they wouldn’t have to hear until middle school.
Beyond the concerns going on the outside of the boat, my wife and I have to put up with issues on the boat itself. My oldest son is complaining about the fact that his mother and I won’t let him shoot off his own collection of fireworks from the boat. My son, who happens to be the biggest whiner in the family, actually wonders out loud what the danger is of lighting an explosive on a vehicle that has two exposed gas tanks surrounded by hundreds of other boats with exposed gas tanks. Gee, I wonder. My little master logician then becomes bored and rallies into what I’d like to call perpetual question mode. Every 30 seconds it’s a new interrogation: What time is it? When do the fireworks start? Can we go fishing while we wait? When we get back can we play video games? When this is done, can we shoot fireworks off from our dock? Can he stay over at his friend’s house tomorrow night? On and on it goes. Not to make a scene in front of the other boaters I answer him with a simple yes or no.
My youngest son is neck and neck with his brother in his attempt to wear his mother and my nerves down to the nub. His tactics are more physical than they are cerebral. First, he wants to sit on his mom’s lap. Then he’s cold and he needs a jacket. Then he’s thirsty. Then he wants to sit with his legs hanging off the side of the boat. Then he spontaneously decides to karate chop me just south of my belt line. The child is a Tasmanian devil in swimming trunks.
My oldest daughter has the bladder the size of a raisin and is complaining, and eventually crying, that she has to go to the bathroom and can’t hold it any longer. My wife tells her the only option is to hang off the side of the boat and go in the lake. She refuses to do that and so she cries and paces back and forth on the boat constantly getting in everyone’s way of seeing the fireworks.
My youngest daughter has fallen asleep under the table sucking her thumb but not before she has violently yanked on her sister’s hair for having taken a beach towel that she was going to use as a blanket.
Our dog is terrified of loud booms. During a thunderstorm she will pant and pace around the house as if she is on the verge of having a stroke. She is no better on the boat with the fireworks going off and is never more than five inches away from my wife the whole time. My wife went to the front of the boat to drop the anchor and the dog was so close to her that she got caught up in the rope that is tied to the anchor and she was nearly brought down to the bottom of the lake. We rush to untangle the beast and she returns to pacing and panting as if she were on the deck of a Swift boat on the Me Kong Delta.
We didn’t set anchor very well and started drifting closer and closer to the beach. I could tell we were drifting towards shore because only a moment before I could only see the outside lights of the houses on shore. Now I can discern the patterns they have on their furniture. My wife and I bickered about where to anchor the boat. She wanted to be closer; I wanted to be further away which would insure a head start on the other boats once the fireworks ended. We also hadn’t prepared the anchor ahead of time and we discovered the rope tied to the anchor was in dozens of knots so it took a while to untie it. I had to continuously run back and restart the boat and move it before we drifted into someone and then return to the front deck to help my wife in attempting to untangle the wretched thing.
The fireworks started and my wife and I sat on separate sides of the boat. We got to see about a quarter of the show because we were consistently checking on the anchor and placating the urchins. As soon as the grand finale began I got the anchor pulled up, the boat turned around and the engine revved for home. “Dad, it’s the grand finale,” my oldest son whined. “Then get to the back of the boat and finish watching it,” I replied.
I came to the channel that separates the lakes and there was a pontoon getting closer and closer to ours. The driver was oblivious to my craft and I could tell his boat was beyond its maximum weight capacity as its sauced up passengers were crammed all over the thing making it look like a ship of ragtag exiles from the Betty Ford Clinic. If you were to tally the alcoholic content of everyone on the boat you’d probably get a something like 50.0 on the Breathalyzer. One of the passengers was waving a light stick to alert me of their presence. "Yeah, don’t worry, Janis Joplin. I could smell the whiskey cokes from across the lake. I see you." Because I suffer from night blindness I nearly run the boat up on some cattails to avoid the party barge but I turn the wheel hard and haul myself and my wards through the channel and on to the lake that takes us home.
We finally got the boat back to our dock after having to stop several times to take weeds off the prop. As we pulled up to our dock, my neighbors were coming in at the same time. Three boats were attempting to dock at the same time, ours and two of our neighbors, which provided for a tight situation. We got too close to their boats, so my wife had to jump in the lake, shoes, pants, jacket and all to physically stop our boat from hitting theirs. She also had to shoo the neighbor’s dog away that was in the lake next to our dock frolicking around (as it always is) before it got hit. (What a woman!) The owner of the dog was unfortunately oblivious to the situation as he was so schlotzed he had to be lifted off his boat and carried home by one of his passengers.
I cleaned up the boat, found my daughter’s flip-flops that she was looking for all day, lifted the engine and cleaned off another batch of weeds from the prop and collected all of the half empty pop cans. I took the American flag down that I had tied to back end of the boat, folded it neatly and held it out in front of me to make sure it was folded correctly. It was dark out but the colors of the flag were still pronounced and the stars and stripes were discernible so I paused and looked at it for a moment. What am I so worked up about I thought to myself? I married the only woman I have ever truly loved and we have been blessed with these beautiful albeit sometimes frustrating children and we take them on the boat to watch fireworks and to celebrate the fact that we even have a boat to do it with. That we live on the lake and have a dog that is neurotic and overweight and a cooler with seven different kinds of pop to chose from is worth being grateful for. That we live in a country that has provided us opportunity to achieve these things humbles me further. Yep, that’s freedom. It’s about people gathering family and friends and being ambitious enough to journey out amongst the rabble and natural elements to celebrate achievement and savor the experience of living in the greatest country on God’s earth. Would I have had my guitar on the boat that evening, I would have played something similar to Hendrix’s "Star Spangled Banner" to calm my nerves and to put me in the right state of mind. The Hendrix interpretation represents America well when you think about it. It is wild, restless and soulful.
Every time I take the family out on the firework excursion, I vow I will never do it again. But, I know in my heart that when the next Fourth of July comes around I probably will.