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The Myth, the Truth, And the General's Glory

By John Gould / November 8, 1996



We pause," says the radio announcer, "to honor America," and as prelude to the afternoon game, we get a rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" by a local thrush, or perhaps a glee club. All to the good. I like the occasions when a Canadian team comes down, or we go up, and we honor Canada as well, giving us two anthems, with the visiting team's coming first.

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This was extra fine at The Forum in Montreal, where a gifted baritone stood on the ice to blast the rafters with "The Star Spangled Banner," and then would do "O Canada" in both French and English. Starting in French, he finished in the other, and he was followed by a short and impressive silence in both tongues that decorated the loving friendship of both sovereignties one to the other. Then the Bruins and the Habs went at each others' throats, and everybody had a good time.

This effort at bilingual patriotism always reminds me, and I grow sentimental, of Gen. John J. (Blackjack) Pershing - who commanded our doughboys in the Great War - and his heroic handling of the French language when he arrived in France. You can look it up. (See note at end.) It was after England and Canada had been involved with the Huns for some time, and aid from America was much needed.

I wasn't quite 10 and I don't remember any consecutive incidents, but I do recall fragments of this and that as we went to battle. I can remember the crowds standing in line with ration tickets to get sugar, but I don't remember if we got any sugar. I can remember a decorated general who came to school and gave us a recipe for home-baked bread that would win the war, and we were to take it home to our mothers. We sang "The Star Spangled Banner," and when my mother looked at the bread recipe she said it would cost 25 cents a loaf more than the bread she always baked. I remember the general also passed out little flags, and we sang, "Soldier-boy-Soldier-boy-where-are-you-going-waving-so-proudly-the-Red-White-and-Blue...."

The arrival of the first convoy of troopships at Le Havre, bringing US soldiers to France, was a vast event, and preparations were carefully made. First, General Pershing, who knew no more French than the word "taxi," was coached by a linguist to exclaim (with gestures), "Lafayette! We are here!" His gestures would include a sweep of the harbor to show the thousands of boys in khaki drawn up topside and hanging in the rigging, with the protective escort of a flag-decked Navy. The general, naturally, was to deliver these historic words, a thank-you for aid in the American Revolution, in French.

He was, his instructor confided, letter-perfect.

It is well to reflect that at the time there was no television. Wireless was in use, but there was only rudimentary radio. Sound pictures were yet to come; motion pictures were silent. Every movie theater had a piano player down front who could improvise, or bring appropriate tunes out of memory: "Hearts and Flowers" for the romantic scenes, and "The Ride of the Valkyries" for the chase scenes. It was a custom then to play the national anthem after the performance, a reminder to the audience to go home. The "press" meant the newspapers, and a silent short from Pathe News, a French company, worked in before the comedy and the feature picture, was the only pictorial news effort we saw. Pathe News duly covered the arrival of these American soldiers, but without sound.

AFTER General Pershing said "Lafayette! Nous voila!" a French military band, well rehearsed, struck up the US national anthem, to be followed by "La Marseillaise." The Pathe News crew were cranking their motion-picture cameras, getting ready to send this historic and sentimental story around the world.

There was a small mistake that didn't matter. The French band couldn't find any sheet music for "The Star Spangled Banner." A search found nothing. "C'est la guerre!" But a cornetist said he remembered hearing the tune on a nickelodeon at Atlantic City years ago, and he could blow it from memory. He did, and the notes were set down and arranged, and the musicians quickly got our anthem in order and were ready when General Pershing stepped forward to say, "Lafayette! Nous voila!"

It made no difference, because no Frenchman at the exercises knew it was the wrong tune. It made no difference to the American soldiers right down, or up, to General Pershing, because they all thought the band was making a whimsical drollerie, and hail, hail, the gang was certainly all here. And in the US it made no difference, because every piano player in every movie theater immediately fitted the right tune to the right occasion and played "The Star Spangled Banner." Our country thus went to war.

Note: If you did look it up, you found it was not General Pershing at all, but somebody else at another place at a different time. That's the way to spoil a good yarn. But let me add:

"The Old Settlers' Club" was a group of men in Portland, Maine, who met noontimes at the Eastland Hotel for lunch and reminiscence. I would be invited to join them now and then by member Harry Lyseth, who was then superintendent of schools in Portland, but had earlier played the piano in the Strand Theater. He remembered playing "The Star Spangled Banner" and trying to make it come out even with whatever the French were playing.

He said, "When I heard it was 'Hail! Hail!' I just thought the French meant it that way and how funny it was!"