What The Flag Means To Me

This may come as a complete shock to you, but I was a Girl Scout. I hated it, mind you, but I was a Girl Scout. I was also a safety patrol in the fifth grade. I loved it. I wore my neon orange belt and buckled it with pride. One thing I remember so distinctly about both of these jobs, the one I hated and the one I loved, was what they taught me about the American flag.

Now I come from a family with a storied military past. I’ve been taught a thing or two about the flag and what it means. My father served during The Korean War and four of his brothers served during World War II, my Uncle Paul paying the ultimate sacrifice fighting against the Japanese on Saipan. My father used to tell me about the three blue stars that were displayed in the front window of their home during that time. His eyes often teared up when he spoke of that lone gold star.

One of my uncles served during multiple wars and was awarded many honors, including a Purple Heart and two Silver Stars. My father loved to regale us with heroic stories about his brothers and I loved hearing them. It was unfathomable to me that those men I met on summer vacations had been through so much. Rarely would they ever speak of their trials or accomplishments.

I remember the occasional story being told, but only at the insistence of my father. They were proud men, never boastful. I recall one of my uncles relaying a story about being attacked by enemy forces while in a submarine. Hell of a story, he said with a chuckle. Then we all just casually moved on to have lunch and talk about mundane topics like the weather.

Another uncle, one that loved nothing more than to see my excitement at his beautiful garden. He would tell me stories of how it was his job to dive in the same waters they had just used to test atomic bombs. Then he’d snap a fresh asparagus twig from his garden for me and we’d chat about how well his raspberries were coming in.

While these men, these heroes, my uncles were not the type to puff up their chests about all they accomplished, my father made it certain that I understood. And I did. I got it, loud and clear. So, when I was taught about the flag and its code during my time as a Girl Scout and as a safety patrol, I took it seriously. I think that’s part of the reason why I was chosen to be one of the students that was given the responsibility of both raising and lowering the flag from the school flagpole each day.

I’d learned the basics of the flag code in Girl Scouts, even participating in a ceremony properly retiring a worn and tattered American flag by burning it. You show the stars and stripes respect by not flying it when it’s torn and ripped, but also by disposing of it in the proper way, never simply throwing it in the garbage.

When I was a safety patrol I was taught that the American flag is flown on top of any other flag, special care must be taken to never let it touch the ground when lowering and raising it, and it has to be folded in a specific way after it has been taken down and before it is put away. I, along with my other flag mate, strictly adhered to these rules. It was important to me, even at the tender age of ten.

The flag code, if I remember correctly from my elementary days, also states that you should never fly the flag in inclement weather. You should never wear the flag. And, it should only be flown at night if properly illuminated.

Let’s fast forward a bit from those childhood days of mine, to a few years ago. I had a neighbor and she flew an American flag in front of her house. I’ll call her Sally. Sally flew her flag proudly. She was very vocal about her patriotism. Home of the free because of the brave, and all that jazz. One day, Sally got a new next door neighbor. This neighbor was part of the American dream, coming from another country and establishing roots in the neighborhood, starting a flourishing local business.

I’ll call this new neighbor Lou. At first, she was excited about Lou moving in. Oh, yeah, you know Lou? He runs the so and so store down the corner! He’s great! So, cool. Lou is great. This new neighbor is going to be just fine. Lou moves in and everything is fine.

Not long after Lou moved in, so did his wife, a hijab wearing Muslim from a middle eastern country. The exact same middle eastern country Lou is from, but I guess that didn’t matter until a woman in a hijab moved in with him, because that’s when Sally’s talk of “terror cells” began and never ceased.

Shortly after our new neighbors moved in, Sally started to decorate every square inch outside her small abode with anything red, white, and blue. Her flag flew proudly, 24 hours a day, no matter the weather. Then, she started going door to door asking neighbors if they wanted a flag to fly on their home. Ya know, to “show the new neighbors just what country we are living in.” I declined the offer and listened as my veteran neighbor declined too. “I know what kind of an American I am. I don’t need to fly a flag to let everyone know.”

Some neighbors did take up Sally’s offer and flags began popping up all over the neighborhood. They flew during the day, the sea air whipping them to and fro. They flew at night, most of them not illuminated. They flew during good weather and bad. I would occasionally walk the street with a broom and rescue them from the muddy and wet gutter prisons they were entrapped in. They flew when they were torn and faded and ripping. Occasionally, a pole would fall and I would see the stars and stripes on the ground for most of the day, but at least our new neighbors knew what country we were living in, right?

I don’t fly an American flag. It’s not because I’m not patriotic. It’s not because I hate this country. It’s mostly because I’m lazy. I know how much responsibility it takes to maintain a flag and I know I’m not up to the task. I’d rather have no flag than to have one and treat it poorly. Besides, a piece of cloth could never tell you what is in my heart, what I know about those brave and quiet men my father told me about my entire childhood.

Colin Kaepernick took a knee to silently protest systemic racism in this country and our president called him a son of a bitch. This weekend, I watched as many other players took a knee with Colin. It made me proud. It made me proud to live in a country that allows dissent. It made me proud to see men who knew they would face backlash that could possibly end their multimillion dollar careers take a stand against oppression and injustice.

America is not a flag. It’s not a song. It’s a country, made up of many faces from many backgrounds, the land of the free and the home of the brave. You may think that only men like my father and his brothers are the brave ones, but bravery comes in all forms. And, sometimes we get so wrapped up in a romanticized notion of patriotism that we forget about what freedom truly means.

To take a knee, to silently protest what is unjust is American. It is a true expression of freedom. To tell a country, as its leader, that anyone who does so should be fired from their job is fascism, which is decidedly un-American. You may not like how Colin and many other players protested this weekend, but it was their right and it deserves respect.

My former neighbor Sally is surely one of the ones opposed to Colin taking a knee. I bet she sees it as un-American. I’m sure if I met her on the street today, on my way to the mailbox, she’d have all sorts of things to say about it. Boastful, chest thumping patriot she is. And I guarantee her flag would be stuck in the gutter, wet and muddy and covered in leaves, while she was telling me all about just how disrespectful he was.

What Colin did is what freedom looks like. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable to see, but that doesn’t mean the message behind it should be ignored. Many players took a knee this weekend, and I take it with them. I hope they do it again next weekend and again and again if they feel so strongly about why they are doing it. That is freedom and America is supposed to be the land of the free and the home of the brave.

I may not fly a flag, but I know what it stands for. It stands for the right of Colin to take a knee, but it also stands for my responsibility to respect his decision.


*Featured image courtesy of Pixabay