At Large : Flagging
Oh no, you say, he's been on about marriage and death repeatedly over the past few weeks. Doesn't he have anything else on his mind?
And, of course, I do. You may remember that the Love Doctor has inhabited this space from time to time over the past 10 or 11 years. But, rest easy, there will be no relationship advice on offer this morning.
Still, I've counseled you on marriage and death once or twice recently, and this morning, you'll find, I'm going to touch on the latter subject again. Don't despair, I'll just touch on it. The question at hand, put in its simplest form, is what's up with all those flags?
American flags are everywhere. Car windows, antennas, in the trees, in shop windows, on roadside mailboxes, on lapels and hats. Boats, trucks, bicycles, motorcycles: all show the flag.
A flag overspread Bill Honey's coffin, at the West Tisbury Cemetery recently. Banker Bill, a veteran of the Army Air Corp in World War II, went to his absolutely certain eternal and celestial reward in a ceremony that was elevated by the military honors accorded him by his fellow Island veterans, every one of them a friend as well, I'm sure. The ceremony included the discharge of weapons, and taps, whose melody reaches deeply and unavoidably into the hearts and memories of its hearers.
I was surprised by the flag and the militarism, on behalf of this least warlike and most generous and gentle of men. But, the hearts of men and women extend to and entwine unpredictably. Their memories and unspoken resolves may never be entirely known to us, even to those of us who thought we knew and understood a neighbor and friend. Bill, counselor and comfort to so many, we found, was devoted too to his brothers and sisters in arms and had earned a few last moments above ground with nothing between him and the sky but the flag.
I wonder what that flag and all the others mean to the people who fly them, to those who went to the store to buy them, or clipped them from newspapers and magazines, or dug them out of dad's foot locker in the attic. What are all those flags intended to say on behalf of the folks who fly them and those whose caskets they cover?
And when you pass a house with no Stars and Stripes hanging over the porch or at the beginning of the driveway, what does that mean?
Between 1776 and 1960, the American flag had at least 10 official and unofficial makeovers. The flag that Gen. George Washington ordered hoisted above his Cambridge, Mass., headquarters in January of that memorable Revolutionary year was a hybrid, a diffident symbol of a young, uncertain, and divided nation which had no sure understanding of how all this would turn out.
There were the 13 stripes, but then there was the canton which featured the Union Jack. It was a flag with one foot in the new world and one in the old.
As the year wore on and in the summer we declared ourselves for ourselves, Colonial tempers grew sanguinary, and the flag that best represented the Yankee state of mind became the First Navy Jack. A rattlesnake stretched menacingly across the Jack's seven red and six white stripes. The legend was "Don't Tread on Me."
Nothing much happened to the 13 stripes as the young nation began its sovereign life and its immigrant population spread across the apparently vast American continent. States joined the union, a few tried to separate but they were thwarted, and the young nation added stars and more stars to Old Glory's blue canton, till in 1960 Hawaii made it 50. Through all those nearly 200 years, Old Glory flew over battlefields here but mostly abroad. It covered caskets and graves.
You may have noticed that recently the news media won the battle it waged frantically during the hottest years of the Iraq wars to force the Pentagon to allow the flagged coffins of dead American soldiers repatriated at Andrews Air Force Base to be photographed for publication.
The news execs said the photos were, in themselves, news and that the country's noses ought to be pressed against their TV screens to see the caskets paraded from the transport plans, so we citizens couldn't miss war's real life horror. In fact, I think they thought it would make hot copy in the divided nation, and the pain of the dead soldiers' families be damned.
Anyhow, now they can photograph as they see fit the soldiers' caskets returning from Iraq, Afghanistan, and who knows where, but they don't. For some reason, it doesn't suit them anymore. It's not that hot.
Often, we don't notice the flag, except in connection with the dead, on Memorial Day and July 4 and Patriot's Day, Veteran's Day, and Flag Day, when the Stars and Stripes bloom in graveyards and we remind ourselves of sacrifices, now distant in time and space. What do the flags represent today?
I suppose some of the flags we see today are meant to recall the thousands who died on September 11, 2001, innocent victims or heroes, in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania. Some flags intend solemn support for the young men and women sent to attack and subdue our attackers; after all, their lives are at risk on our behalf. Some of the flags I see certainly describe a furious bloodlust; people are angry at the injustice of the terrorist attacks and at the loss of security, and they want revenge and a speedy return of the safe carelessness with which we formerly lived our lives, buffered by oceans and compliant neighbors.
But beyond all this, I like the ideas that the flag reminds me of when it snaps in the southwest wind high above Owen Park, or from the stern of the sailboat, or in front of the school.
I like the ideas as Winston Churchill, speaking at Harvard College in 1943, defined them. He was at his wartime best, declaring the bedrock importance of the British-American alliance to the continuing successful prosecution of the Second World War, reminding Americans of the reasons they were fighting side by side with his people, against whom the Yanks had fought for independence. Doing so, the bulldog PM named what the flag symbolizes.
"Law, language, literature - these are considerable factors," Churchill said. "Common conceptions of what is right and decent, a marked regard for fair play, especially to the weak and poor, a stern sentiment of impartial justice, and above all the love of personal freedom, or as Kipling put it:
"'Leave to live by no man's leave underneath the law.' These are common conceptions on both sides of the ocean among the English-speaking peoples. We hold to these conceptions as strongly as you do.
"We do not war primarily with races as such. Tyranny is our foe, whatever trappings or disguise it wears, whatever language it speaks, be it external or internal, we must forever be on our guard, ever mobilised, ever vigilant, always ready to spring at its throat. In all this, we march together. Not only do we march and strive shoulder to shoulder at this moment under the fire of the enemy on the fields of war or in the air, but also in those realms of thought which are consecrated to the rights and the dignity of man."
There's something to wave the flag about, something to pledge allegiance to.