Burning Old Glory

In the United States, today is Flag Day. Citizens are encouraged to fly flags at home. We fly them properly. We fly them proudly. But on this day, we also burn them properly and with pride.

When we hear about a flag-burning, it doesn’t always mean a lack of patriotism. Sometimes, it’s the exact opposite.

The day was June 14th and I was visiting my family in Mid-Michigan. Part of that visit included a flag retirement ceremony. American Legion Post 101, of which my father was a member, conducted this ceremony on Flag Day and the experience has been etched in my mind forever.

The three-man color guard, including my father, marched toward the ceremony grounds. One of them proudly carried the American flag. They were a tight and disciplined group. It was as though they were still in the service of their country.

Indeed, they were.

We could hear their boots crunching the gravel underfoot, but that was the only sound except for the guard leader’s orders: “Forward march!” “Halt.” We faced the color guard and the Legion post commander led us in reciting the pledge of allegiance. Then he introduced the short ceremony by stating from prepared copy:

“We are gathered here to destroy these flags that have been deemed no longer serviceable. It is proclaimed that each of these flags has served well.

“The U.S. Flag Code states: the flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.”

I’d never seen a flag burned before. Certainly I’d seen news stories about radicals burning flags in protest. This was different. My thoughts were racing. I was like a three-year-old asking questions non-stop.

“How long must a flag fly before it’s this tattered?” “How do people know where to take a tattered flag to be disposed of properly?” “How many flags must they have collected in a year in a city of this size?”

I never asked those questions. I just watched.

I’d seen my father in his jaunty little cap and white gloves marching in parades before. But he’d never seemed so solemn then. Besides, parades are fun. And noisy. I could hear my father’s feet as he marched by on the pavement during a parade.

Now, if you listened, you could hear the sounds of traffic on M-57. Except for that, it seemed as though noise would be unwelcome. Only the post commander, resplendent in his uniform, spoke. He gave instructions to the Flag Bearer to come forward and receive the first flag to be issued to the flames.

“Who starts that fire?” I wondered. “Who will keep an eye on it and how long will it take to burn all the flags?”

Still, with all my questions, I simply watched along with everyone else. My stepmother stood beside me and I wondered if, as a legion auxiliary member, she’d witnessed a flag burning before. It was another question I didn’t ask.

In all my days, I’d never felt so awed by what our flag stood for. Now it seemed my questions really were unnecessary. The answer to questions that truly mattered occurred to me. Those answers explained why we say the Pledge. They explained why we burn Old Glory in this fashion. They explained why we need few words.

The answer was epitomized in one word: Respect.

The Flag Bearer came forward with the flag, which had been cut apart in accordance with the Code’s instructions. He placed that first flag in the fire.

“Why am I crying?” I thought. Another question and one only I could answer.

Smoke rose from the small fire; it was probably started with gas or some such thing. I wiped my cheeks and heard the post commander dismiss the color guard and the crowd.

I didn’t want it to be over. I wanted to watch Old Glory continue to burn. My stepmother said, “Come on, let’s go inside and have a drink. We’ll wait for your dad.”

Watching a flag-burning gave me a new perspective and the perspective is based on that one word. Respect. A new respect for our star-spangled banner.

Long may she wave.

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