Too Little Respect

On my first day of school, along with all the other kids in my rural Iowa school, I saluted the United States flag. Once we had gathered in a circle around the flag pole on the school lawn, two eighth-graders gently carried the flag from its shelf in the schoolhouse to the base of the flagpole, reverently unfolded the triangle, connected the grommets on the canvas edging to the snaps on the rigging, and then flew the flag up the pole high above us.

We recited the Pledge of Allegiance. I knew the words, but had no idea what they meant, just as I knew the words to the 23rd Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer without understanding what I was parroting. “I pledge allegiance to the flag.” That’s the part that inspired me. “…and to the republic for which it stands” was meaningless.

For me the flag was sacred. We celebrated its rising in the morning and its descent at the end of the school day. Absolutely I knew that the flag must never touch the ground. What dire event might happen if the flag touched the ground didn’t even enter my imagination; the flag must never touch the ground.

Also the flag could never fly in the rain or snow. If there was moisture in the air the flag stayed on its shelf, and instead of reciting the Pledge outside around the flagpole, we saluted the much smaller flag in the corner of our one-room schoolhouse. Why that smaller flag didn’t need to be folded and stored overnight I didn’t question.

The flag I saluted when I was in kindergarten was the identical flag I saluted in the eighth grade. We took good care of it. If the flag was flying and it started to rain, our teacher would nod to a couple of the older kids and they would rush out to retrieve the flag when it was barely damp. Once inside that flag was carefully hung from the protective railing that surrounded the big green furnace in the room until it was dry and could be properly folded.

Sometimes flags do wear out; they get torn or stained, and then they have to be destroyed. When my brother-in-law was in a nursing home, one day members of the local veterans organization came and set up their big metal container in the parking area. The veterans from the nursing home, as well as townspeople, gathered as the imperfect flags were ceremoniously placed, still in their triangular folds, onto the fire and burned until only ashes remained. Then all recited the Pledge of Allegiance, many with tears staining their aged cheeks. All of the ashes were reverently gathered to be buried in some hallowed spot.

Today, with all the gabble about patriotism, with every politician sporting a metal or plastic flag in his lapel, perhaps made in China and provided by some lobbyist, the flag has become a cheap symbol. Torn flags attached to dirty pickups flutter. Rows of flags serve as an easy bright background during political speeches and press events. After parades and other public events cheap, throw-away flags litter the garbage cans and are trampled by crowds leaving the events. Showing unbearable disrespect, people actually make clothing from flags of the United States. 

While flag protocol allows weather-resistant flags to perpetually fly, too often I see light-weight cotton or polyester flags drooping in the rain, flapping through the nights, being displayed as decorations or pretend signs of patriotism.

Our flag has become a cheap logo, showing up on football helmets, in attention-grabbing banners on websites, in ads for plumbers and mascara. Pledging allegiance to a logo is a mindless act. When a United States flag is burned to protest injustice, the public is horrified. Why? That’s only one small step beyond fashioning a shirt out of a flag or tossing one into the garbage.

Phyllis Henry lives and writes from a hill overlooking Burley Lagoon. 

Coast to Coast