2006.06.01 You're a grand old flag

Written by David Green.

By COLLEEN LEDDY

I’ve admitted before that I’m pretty bad at understanding symbolism—especially the kind that appears in poetry. But there’s one symbol that I understand the meaning of more and more—the American flag.

I didn’t use to give much thought to the flag. It’s always been just a piece of material to me—and the subject of one of my all-time favorite songs—“You’re a Grand Old Flag.” In junior high school we went on a lot of field trips and that was the song we sang over and over on the bus. But it was the rousing music and lyrics that appealed to me, not what the song was about.

Junior high was a hot time for me when it came to the flag—I was a member of the school color guard. On assembly days, when the whole school gathered in the auditorium, my fellow color guard members and I, dressed in our “uniform” of white shirts or blouses, and navy or black skirts or pants, would meet in the back. Often, I was selected to be the flag bearer. Shy as I was, I relished the role. It was an honor to walk alone down the center aisle from the back of the large auditorium to the stage, carefully carrying the flag.

Once I arrived at the center of the stage, the audience would hush, I would look out on a sea of adolescent bodies and shout the scripted words as loud as my little shy voice was capable of, “Color guard, to the front and center, march!” When they joined me on stage, I would yell, “Assembly, salute!” and everyone would place their hand over their heart. Next I would yell, “Assembly, pledge!” and the auditorium would fill with the sound of their voices reciting the pledge of allegiance.

Even though I was directly involved in the pomp and circumstance, as a young teenager, the flag had little meaning for me. Now (and I’m not even sure when, how, or why this transformation took place) it’s all I can do to keep from letting choked up tears flow when I stand in the audience at basketball or football games gazing at the flag as the Star Spangled Banner plays. No, I’m not moved to tears by the lousy music I’m incapable of singing to or the lyrics speaking of war.

But standing with a crowd of people, all looking at the flag and listening to that song, I have time to reflect on what that flag represents—what a great country this is, in spite of its many, many problems and injustices. The flag is still nothing but a piece of material to me, but it now has far more significance. I revere what it stands for, what it symbolizes. It is something that connects me to all other residents of this land, something that makes me realize that America is my place and it’s a good place.

There’s a lot I don’t like about our national anthem—“America, the Beautiful” would be my choice for our country’s theme music—but when I hear the part about “Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there” that’s when I start to choke up. I think it’s because I appreciate that our flag is still here, that this country I love is still here, that I’m living in a place I love with people I love without the fear and lack of freedom prevalent in so many countries today.

I don’t understand it, but that symbol makes me glad to be an American.

This past Memorial Day I arrived late to the cemetery. Guest speaker John Skinner was in the middle of a speech urging people to support the proposed amendment to protect the flag. I mean no disrespect to Mr. Skinner but I was disheartened to hear his words.

I know that for people who have fought and for those with loved ones who have died in the name of the flag, its meaning is far more powerful than it will ever be to me or to anyone inconsiderate enough to violate it.

Still, I don’t think the flag needs any protection at all. This is America—people can violate or destroy the flag all they want, but it won’t change or denigrate what it stands for. America is great precisely because people have the freedom to do things others of us disagree with, freedom to express their opinion and show their displeasure with the U.S. government, for example, in the highly charged and graphic method of setting the flag on fire. I don’t agree with the method. I think it’s a wacko and disrespectful way of making a point, but I don’t think we should throw them in jail for it.

Don’t rally behind the call to protect a piece of material. Rally behind the principles and freedoms that our flag symbolizes.

The beginning portion of this column appeared in a previous edition of the Observer.

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