My relationship with the flag is personal.
It begins and ends with my long-deceased dad.
My dad, whose Bronze Star citation hangs on the wall over my shoulder as I write.
My dad, who fought in the Pacific Theater for four years, from Pearl Harbor to VJ-Day, without returning home.
My dad, who lost two brothers in the European Theater, one of whom I am named after.
I cannot look at the flag without thinking of my dad. So I make no apologies for shedding a tear during Fox TV’s pre-Super Bowl presentation of Johnny Cash’s 1974 spoken-word recording “Ragged Old Flag.” I wish my dad were there with me.
I just re-read the lyrics. They sound like he, himself, could have written them. Particularly these:
… she’s getting threadbare and wearing thin
But she’s in good shape for the shape she’s in
‘Cause she’s been through the fire before
And I believe she can take a whole lot more
My dad said precious little about his experiences in World War II. Occasionally he’d joke that the Japanese saved his life. He was stationed in Hawaii and was his regiment’s heavyweight boxer. He weighed only 185 pounds and was scheduled to fight the reigning champ, “who would have killed me,” he’d say. But then came that December morning in 1941 and his fighting went from the ring to tropical beaches and jungles.
His only other reference to the war was when he’d reach for another slice of bread at dinner. During those four years of fighting, he went from 185 pounds to 135. He said the thing he missed most was bread and vowed if he ever made it back home, he’d eat bread at every meal. Sometimes, and he called this his dessert, it was a final slice of bread with gravy poured over it.
That could not have been good for his arteries, but it was not heart disease that claimed him in 1994. It was lung cancer. There was no bread in the Pacific, but there were cigarettes.
Right from the time of his death, my dad became the flag for me, and the flag became him.
Every time I hear the National Anthem, I stare at the Stars ‘n’ Stripes and let my dad come to mind. I do not try to control my thoughts. I let it up to him. Sometimes he is a little farm boy romping through the fields of White Haven, a happy-go-lucky dog at his side. Sometimes he is the beloved Pop Pop in a plaid flannel shirt playing checkers, and cheating mind you, with my son or daughter. And sometimes he is a 22-year-old soldier with an empty belly crying himself to sleep on a rain-soaked muddy patch of some God forsaken Pacific island knowing another day of battle lay ahead.
I can’t help but wonder what he would think of someone kneeling during the National Anthem or sitting the way Beyonce and Jay-Z did at the Super Bowl. My dad was not an educated man, but he was a thoughtful one. And I do believe he would have said the flag he loved and fought under stood for freedom, including the freedom to protest.
But he wouldn’t have liked such antics and nor do I. I also get annoyed when the public address announcer tells men to take off their hats for the National Anthem. We should do that automatically.
I had my dad in mind when I wrote my speech for my high school graduation in 1967. It included this line from the John Greenleaf Whittier poem “Barbara Frietchie:”
“Shoot if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country’s flag,” she said.
I looked up that poem a few years ago for a Flag Day column and found it was based on the tale that Barbara Frietchie, at 95 years old, waved the Union flag in the face of General Stonewall Jackson and his Confederate troops as they marched through Frederick, Maryland, in 1862 on their way to Antietam. The story goes that the flag had been riddled with bullets and lay on the ground. The elderly Barbara Frietchie scooped it up, and, in Whittier’s words:
She leaned far out on the window-sill, And shook it forth with a royal will. “Shoot, if you must, this old gray head, But spare your country’s flag,” she said. A shade of sadness, a blush of shame, Over the face of the leader came; The nobler nature within him stirred To life at that woman’s deed and word: “Who touches a hair of yon gray head Dies like a dog! March on!” he said.
I found that Winston Churchill, when traveling through Maryland in 1943 and seeing the signs for Frederick, recited the entire Whittier poem from memory.
I also discovered a neat little tidbit that fanned my Patriotic embers. While Flag Day, which we note on June 14, is not an official federal holiday, Pennsylvania was the first to make it a state holiday. That was on June 14, 1937.
I like that.
My dad would have too.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.