There is a modest display case that stands in the corner of my mothers dining room. It was a Christmas present from my brothers and I to our parents , years ago. My mother filled it up with the usual things one finds in such miniature family museums; pictures of her four babies, their babies, and their babies babies; a few pieces of glass ware that were her mothers prized possessions, souvenirs from a trip to Niagara Falls my father and her took back in the sixties. Keepsakes that are too delicate to be kept anywhere else in the house full of four sons, ten grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.
When my father died, five years ago, my mother cleared off the top shelf and filled it with remembrances of her husband of sixty years. It’s a modest display as such things go, befitting the man.
There’s a 8×10 picture of Dad in his early seventies, looking much younger, with an infectious smile. A couple of old snuff bottles of his fathers that he would tell you about if you asked. With my brothers approval, I put daddy’s belt on the shelf, in front. It had a great influence on us four boys growing up; it taught us to grieve over our iniquities.
A Jimmie Rodgers album sits on one end of the shelf; Dad could play and sing his tunes for hours on end – ” Give me ten pounds of potatoes, five pounds of sugar, a loaf of bread, and the latest Jimmie Rodgers record, Mama said I could use the rest of the dollar for candy.”
In the middle of the shelf, in the back, there is a triangular glass fronted wooden case. Through the glass you can see a piece of blue cloth with white stars. My fathers flag. The one that covered his coffin.
There are thousands, hundreds of thousands of such flags scattered in every corner of our country. In the largest mansions and the humblest track houses you can find these cases; on prominent display or tucked away in a closest. It becomes part of the collection of things we acquire, put away, and rarely think of .
I’ve gotten in the habit, in the last few years, of taking my fathers flag down, opening the case, and spreading it out on my ‘full’ sized bed. It covers the bed, side to side, and tucked against the headboard , falls off the end to the floor. I spread it out, smooth the wrinkles and creases and just look at it, sometimes for quite a while.
You don’t really see the flag up close very often; usually its thirty feet away, at the top of the pole, or hanging above the stage, or smaller versions on those stands behind the speakers, hanging limp and still, almost hidden.
But if you spread one of the funeral flags out and look at it up close it can get to you; the colors bright and striking; a field of deep Navy Blue behind pure white stars, blood-red stripes as wide as a big mans hand laid out between the bands of white the color of new snow.
As I look at it, in the back of my mind are all of the things I’ve been taught over the years about our flag; the blue is the sky, the stars a new constellation in the heavens, the white the snow at Valley Forge, and the red the blood of patriots feet, shod in bloody rags carrying that banner to glory, fighting for it, dying for it.
In the front of my mind is a picture of my father watching the news of a mob rioting around an American embassy somewhere, burning HIS flag. I hear him saying;
” There ought to be a dozen dead Marines around that flagpole and a hundred dead rioters around them, before they get their hands on that flag.”
I once thought that sounded extreme, I don’t anymore.
We are a collection of more than three hundred million people; gathered literally from every corner of the world; every race, creed and tribe. When I hear someone say; ‘The world hates America”, I always think ‘ America IS the world’. All that the world is, is here. All that is good and all that is bad in mankind is here.
Most of us will never travel to Washington D.C. We will never see the huts at Valley Forge or walk the fields of Gettysburg, or stand among the crosses stretching almost out of sight at Normandy. The one thing we will see all our lives, that we can lay our hands on, is the flag. The memory that is represented by all of the monuments in Washington, the patient determined commitment of the Patriots shivering in the crude huts of Valley Forge, The ‘Last full measure of devotion” paid by the men at Gettysburg, the courage of the young men laying ‘row upon row’ in the fields at Normandy, are in that flag. The hopes and dreams of all who came before us, their struggles and triumphs, success and disappointments, are in that flag.
The flag is your forbears going back to the first longing in their heart to find a place where their dreams could at least be spoken out loud. It is your mother and father, your home. If it isn’t your home you don’t have a home. You honor your mother and father, you honor your home. If you don’t, sooner or later you will lose it.
After a while I fold my fathers flag in the approved fashion, so that when I’m through the only part visible is the blue field with stars. Sometimes I wipe the case lightly with furniture polish, then slide it back into the cabinet behind my fathers picture and the Jimmie Rodgers album.
My father earned the flag on his coffin with three years service in the Pacific on Okinawa, the Philippines, and an island called Ia Shima where he watched the white-painted bomber carrying the Japanese officials land on their way to the Philippines to surrender. He met and spoke with men from the Army units that had surrendered at Bataan, on their way back to the states, and heard them tell what it felt like to pull the Stars and Stripes down from its pole, and lay it on the ground in defeat. Three and a half years in the hellish Japanese POW camps burned out all but the hard-core of these mens hearts.My father watched men who had almost lost the ability to feel anything weep like children at the telling .
I am trying, not very well I fear, to express something that cannot be written out with the precision of a mathematical formula, or captured with the click of a camera’s shutter. An American flag on the flagpole in front of an embassy is just thirty or forty dollars worth of dyed cloth; they are probably bought a hundred at a time. To those taught to hate what it represents, it is the symbol of evil. But to my father, and many others who revere it, The Star Spangled Banner is heart and soul, hopes and dreams and memories of their physical and spiritual kinsmen.
Every American flag, the one in my families cabinet, the one in your closet, the one on the pole in front of an embassy under siege, each one of them is my fathers flag. Each one is beyond price and should be defended to the last man, at all costs.
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