When I was in the fifth grade I had a job that paid a dollar a week. If you account for inflation it would be nearly eight dollars today, which still isn’t a lot, but it wasn’t a hard job. We lived next door to a VFW hall and they asked me to raise the American flag in the morning and take it down every evening. This was even easier since we lived across the street from my school, so I could do it in the morning as I left the house and then lower it just before dinner.
I enjoyed the job and felt a special pride in performing what I considered to be my civic duty. One of the vets even showed me how to fold the flag into a triangle beginning at the striped end. He would also tell me about his time in the Army during the Korean War.
One morning our teacher took us to the school library so we could learn how to use the card catalogue. The library was on the fourth floor and overlooked my street. However, we soon heard about an emergency at the VFW hall. So we rushed to the window and discovered the flag flying upside down, which meant we were in distress or under attack. Apparently, I had raised it that way and went off to school as unaware as any fifth-grade boy could be. Thankfully, a good citizen driving by stopped his car and corrected the problem. Back then, the cleats for tying ropes on flagpoles were easily accessible. I slunk back to my desk as speculation swirled about what had happened and buried my head in a Danny Dunn book.
Then, as now, the flag stirred emotions, both positive and negative, which makes it an effective symbol. For instance, at that same VFW hall when an honor guard of uniformed vets with flags shot blanks into the air on Memorial Day, our neighbor across the street, who had been gardening, stood up, raised two fingers in the air, and shouted “Peace!” One of the vets, in a uniform that barely contained him, yelled back, “Up yours, lady!” Then, as if on cue, both sides returned to their respective activities: the honor guard to their colors, my neighbor to her gladiolus plants.
Even though my allegiance had been with the veterans (after all, they had seen my leadership potential and hired me), I sympathized with my neighbor. It has been one of my lingering regrets that I never apologized to her for my comrades-in-arms. I comforted myself at the time by thinking that at least they referred to her as “lady.”
This took place at a time when some people burned flags, draft cards, and buildings. If they didn’t take a knee like many NFL players today, they raised a fist in protest as in the 1968 Olympic games in Mexico City. It makes the current blowup over an athlete covering her face with a t-shirt and looking away because she didn’t know what else to do seem trivial.
What is not trivial is the place of the flag in our lives. That place lies at the center of controversy. As in the past, the controversy is over what kind of country we live in and how we see ourselves. In other words, what does it mean to be an American? As it turns out, it’s complicated. Half of the country believes we are good though flawed. The other half insists we are bad because we are flawed.
I’ve come across a video making the rounds on social media concerning the “true history” of the “Star Spangled Banner” by Francis Scott Key. It tells the story of the attack on Fort McHenry in Baltimore in 1814 and the fort holding out despite relentless bombardment from British warships. It is a stirring account embellished with theological symbolism and patriotic myth.
Some may be put off by the “true history” of the anthem, citing Key’s personal history of racism and slaveholding. Others, like the reaction videos that have sprung up around it, are laudatory and thankful. Many reactions come from non-Americans who say they’ve never heard this account before and now “get” why Americans are so reverent toward their flag. One Swede even committed to defending the anthem whenever others disparage it. The video has inspired him to look into the origins of Sweden’s anthem.
Still, questions remain not just about Key and other founding fathers’ involvement in slavery but about where we are headed as a people, black and white. The answers must include where we have been–our past–which cannot be written off or toppled like a statue. Since we have never been perfect, that’s all the more reason to be forgiving. This is not the time to do what I did at the VFW hall. The world is watching.
Image credits: feature by Brad Neathery on Unsplash; neon by Tim Hüfner on Unsplash. Want more? Go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.”