Monday, June 14, 2010

Old Glory

On June 14, 1777, the Second Continental Congress authorized the United States of America to adopt a flag to represent the new nation. And while President Woodrow Wilson called for the celebration of the American flag on June 14, 1916, it wasn’t until 1949 that Congress declared June 14 to be national Flag Day every year.

But you’d hardly know it. Flag Day is on most calendars but it is not a national holiday. The government conducts business, banks are open, the postal service is still going to deliver your mail. Groundhog Day gets more press than Flag Day. Perhaps if Flag Day had a living symbol, like Punxsutawney Phil, rather than a piece of cloth, Flag Day would get a little more hype.

But in some ways, that red, white, and blue piece of cloth we call our flag is a living symbol. At least it is for me. It lives in my present as I see it flapping in the breeze over a few local businesses, at the post office, and even on one of those stubby little poles people set into a small bracket on their front porch. I also see it a few times each week in the form of a pin tacked to someone’s lapel. (This being an election year and all, I see it on lapels more than usual.) And of course, you can’t watch a sporting event on TV without seeing the flag and listening to some celebrity sing The Star Spangled Banner before the first pitch or the kickoff or the opening tip. So the flag lives in my present.

And it lives in my past through my memories. There are pictures in my mind that are filled with the flag.

• The thrill in elementary school of getting to raise and lower the flag for a week, handling it as if it were a precious, fragile family heirloom (and it is).

• The first time I saw the flag flying at half-mast. I saw it flying that way at my school after John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I was only in the second grade at the time and didn’t understand all that was going on, but that flag at half-mast told me that something wasn’t right.

• Then there’s Neil Armstrong and company planting the flag on the moon.

• Newsreels in the late ‘60s of protesters setting fire to the flag in anger over the war or politics or who knows what. I’d be less than honest if I didn’t say that seeing those images set me on fire a little bit too. I couldn’t understand why anyone would do such a thing. I still don’t. I could understand angry Iranians burning our flag when they took our people hostage in 1979, but our own citizens setting it ablaze? Go figure.

• I remember the first picture I saw of my older brother after he joined the Marine Corps. There he was in his uniform and behind him, the American flag he had sworn to defend with his life. It made me proud.

• Who can forget the flag planted and waving on the ruins of the World Trade Center in 2001, and then the miniature flags displayed on countless cars and trucks in the months after 9/11?

• Or the numerous flag-draped coffins rolling off those massive military transport planes during times of war.

• And on a more personal note, I have often stood next to flag-draped coffins at graveside services I officiated. Retired soldiers folding it with such reverence, the slow-motion salute as they present it to the family, the ear-ringing 21 rifle shots, and the playing of Taps.

• What about the flag raised behind an American athlete who just won Olympic gold and the tears in her eyes as she mouths the words to our national anthem?

• Then there’s the first flag I see when I get off the plane that brought me home from some mission point in Africa or Russia or Europe or Latin America. It reminds me that I’m home.

I could go on—so many images and memories of the flag. I hope my memories have sparked some of your own. America has never been a perfect country, and there are plenty of things wrong in our country today, but through it all the flag sort of ties us together. It remains, in spite of our many differences, an enduring symbol of freedom, hope, and opportunity.

So on this Flag Day, I want to salute Old Glory one more time. And I want to say, “Thank you, God, for our nation, for our flag, for those who have sacrificed to keep it flying high, and for all it means to each of us.” It may not be a Hallmark holiday, we’re not waiting to hear if some animal saw his shadow, and there won’t be any office parties to celebrate or gifts to exchange, but it’s a meaningful day nonetheless. Happy Flag Day, everyone!

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