LINCROFT – When we walked into the classroom on that first week of September, we noticed the single ditto sheets on the tops of each of our desks as Joe Fili, senior English teacher, told us to sit down and read the words we saw printed.
Each of us had the same page and the same words, and each of us recognized them immediately. They were the lyrics to the song “Born in the USA,” by Bruce Springsteen.
“Take your time,” urged Fili (pictured, above right), noting how our familiarity with the work caused most of us to disengage. We had, after all, memorized those lyrics, then just two years old, and I can summon the opening lines even now: “Born down in a dead man’s town; the first kick I took was when I hit the ground. You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much till you spend half your life just covering up. Born in the USA.”
We half recited, half read the spares lines over to ourselves, and when they sparked other conversations, perhaps about earlier albums, and how this one lacked the raw power of The River, or Darkness on the Edge of Town, Fili rose from his desk and asked a question of the class:
“What is this song about?”
The question produced exactly the response I know Fili sought, but I didn’t know it then, as we arrogantly acted like an academic from New York couldn’t possibly know something we didn’t about our sacred street and shore turf.
No one raised a hand.
In the ensuing silence, he walked from one end of the room to the other, like an actor preparing to deliver the monologue from Hamlet, as the pages sat in front of us, fully realized, or so we believed, to the point of seeing a kind of sacrilege in sharing it with – of all things – a teacher.
At last, Fili took the initiative, summoned one of us out of his chair, and asked the student to explain, to the rest of us, what Bruce Springsteen meant in the song “Born in the USA.”
“It’s about his love of America,” said the kid. “Bruce loves the USA. Like me.”
Maybe he mumbled something more at the teacher’s request but did not see fit to entangle himself any deeper in lines he innately – just like all of us – understood.
Fili kindly asked him to take his seat and gave another student a chance.
The kid said, “I agree. Bruce loves America, just like me.”
“Thank you,” Fili said. The student could sit down.
The teacher then gave a dramatic pause, still pacing, head bowed thoughtfully, hand stroking his chin. He asked, “Does anyone else have another opinion? Can anyone say what “Born in the USA” is about?”
Silence in the room.
We were satisfied. Called on without warning after a summer of hedonism and indolent revelry, those two brave students had acquitted themselves well with answers adequate to the task, which gave voice to what any one of us would say about that patriotic anthem by beloved local boy made good Bruce.
But Fili suddenly looked unfulfilled, irritated, even angry and enormously offended.
“Wrong,” he spat. “And what I want to know is how I can expect to take you – with any kind of confidence – to ancient Athens and the works of Sophocles and Aeschylus, or to the Elizabethan era and the Globe Theater, to plume the depths of tragedy, when you don’t even know your own myths.”
When he uttered those last words, at the front of the room at last and stationary, he leaned over and spoke in a haunted, desperate whisper. “Myths are all we have,” he added.
Of course, he went on, in his own inimitable Bronx-reared, Jersey Shore-saturated Socratic way, to get us to tell him what Springsteen wanted a mostly anesthetized and amnesia-ridden country to know about Vietnam, specifically the American men who fought that war, submerged in the backbeat of a monster commercial hit.
Our own myth rose up then around the mysterious Fili. “He was in Nam, man. Recon.”
I remember him rolling his eyes, “I was never in Nam,” he said, any more than Springsteen. But those two men, each in his own way, Bruce with beautiful words, and Joe with the genius – not to dismiss – but to see on our own lyric landscape, something akin to those deep visions he loved in Greece and Stratford-upon-Avon, something majestic born of suffering, and American, even our own by virtue of Bruce’s proximity, just up the road – a vital myth.
And all these battered years later, “That damn guy,” the record store owner snapped when he saw me thumbing a copy of Born in the USA the other day, referring to exorbitant concert ticket prices, I think of those Cold War guys still, my old man from the Cuban Missile Crisis, my Uncle Jack, two tours of combat in Vietnam; and my cousin Walt, who took shrapnel and made it back, but as it turned out, not really; my Uncle Tom, who went Marine Corps and didn’t go to South East Asia, but fought that devastating war on the American home front; and Alan, my supervisor in the Monmouth County Park System from Charlie Company, who said, when I asked him once if he could think of anything good over there, “No,” then corrected, himself and added, “I remember a sergeant leaning over a kid so the kid wouldn’t see his legs blown off in a minefield, as he died;” and Danny, Long Range Patrol, and Angelo, the crew chief on the local ambulance company, and our own state Senator Ronald L. Rice, a Marine sergeant who came home to his own town of Newark in flames with the troubles; and all the moms, in all the living rooms of America, with pictures in frames of their sons in uniform, some of them in parts unknown, bodies never claimed; and many, many others, a whole generation impacted, alive or dead, left to tell their story to kids – to sons – still awkwardly groping for a way to communicate gratitude, still struggling to find ourselves, let alone, Joe, the damnable hidden meaning of Shakespeare.