Decoding the Flag

Cheryl Dietrich

        The flag should never touch anything beneath it, such as the ground, the floor, water, or merchandise.
                  —Title 36, U.S.C., Ch. 10, Sec.176(a)

One summer when I was eleven, I bullied my two younger brothers into helping me open a lending library in our grandparents’ garage. We borrowed books from all our friends, sorted them alphabetically by author into battered bookcases, and set up a card file. Finally, to legitimize the venture, we pooled our money and purchased a twenty-five-cent flag. A library should have a flag.
    The morning our library was to open, one of my brothers began to play with the flag and dropped it. I gasped. The flag had touched the ground!
    I had read somewhere that a flag so sullied must be disposed of by burning or burial. Knowing Granny wouldn’t put up with a fire in her driveway, I insisted on burying it. My brothers glumly helped me dig a hole. We laid the flag in it, placed our hands over our hearts, recited the Pledge of Allegiance, and solemnly shoveled dirt over the flag. With no flag, we closed down the library and redistributed the books (which was okay because I had read them all anyway).
    That was the first American flag I owned.

        I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America . . .
                  —The Pledge of Allegiance

Most American children are familiar with the word allegiance years before they learn the simple word ally. Most know indivisible before they study division. When I was a child, each school day began with the students rising to face the flag, place their hands over their hearts, and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. We had only the vaguest idea of what the words meant, except that we lived in a great country, and the flag symbolized that country.
    Pledging allegiance to the flag every morning seemed as natural as taking a bath every night. I assumed it was something all schoolchildren did throughout the world. I pictured little girls in dirndls and blonde pigtails pledging to the German flag, little boys in sombreros and serapes pledging to the Mexican flag, black-haired children of indeterminate sex pledging to the Japanese flag in their kimonos. I was middle-aged before I learned that the pledge hadn’t been written until 1892 and wasn’t officially recognized by Congress until 1942. For the first time it occurred to me that one could find something weird, even a little disquieting, about this daily dose of childhood patriotism.
    Still, reciting the pledge every morning didn’t seem to have harmed the children of my generation. It was simply a ritual signifying the start of the school day.

        When carried in a procession [with other flags], the flag of the United States may be centered
        in front of the others or carried to their right.

                  —“Flag Etiquette,”

For two weeks every June, the First Baptist Church in Oneida, Tennessee, held Vacation Bible School. Each day began with sixty or so children huddled outside the church door, shivering in our shorts and T-shirts in the early chill of the mountain mornings. When the church doors opened, we pressed inside and into the pews for a brief, child-sized version of a worship service.
    The minister would wait till we settled down, then nod to the organist. She played “Onward, Christian Soldiers” while three children proceeded up the center aisle. One bore a Bible; the other two, flags: on the left, the Christian banner and on the right, the American flag. They marched slowly toward the altar while we stood at respectful attention and stared at them, following the symbols they carried up the long aisle—a touch of bright ceremony in an otherwise bland religion.
    The Bible and flag bearers were selected based on good behavior and good family. I should have qualified on both counts, but I never participated in that ritual procession. I had opportunities, of course, but only to carry the Bible. I held out for the flag—preferably the American flag, with its higher precedence—but I would have taken the Christian one if that had been my only choice.
    I wasn’t allowed to carry either flag because I wasn’t a boy. “Why?” I stubbornly asked. (I used why a lot in those days.) “Why can’t a girl carry the flag?”
    “Because the flags are heavy and boys are bigger and stronger” was the pat answer, a patent lie. Look around, I wanted to say. In third grade, and in fourth and fifth, the girls were every bit as strong as, and usually bigger than, the boys.
    I gave up asking. They gave up offering me the opportunity to carry the Bible. So I began every day at Vacation Bible School staring sullenly at the two boys bearing the flags and disdainfully at the little girl who had been fobbed off with the Bible. Perhaps that explains why I was so stern when my brother dropped our short-lived library’s flag. I had to show that I knew the rules, that I could handle the responsibility, that I was worthy.

        O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
        o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

                  —“The Star-Spangled Banner,” national anthem of the United States of America

The battered flag that flew over Ft. McHenry in 1812 contained fifteen stars and fifteen stripes. That was the star-spangled banner that Francis Scott Key wrote about, later set to the tune of a colonial drinking song. I saw it being restored in the Smithsonian Museum of American History. I was shocked by those two extra stripes and stared at them like a child fascinated by an uncle’s six-fingered hands.
    Betsy Ross may have sewn the first American flag, but a man named Francis Hopkinson designed it. The Continental Congress passed a law in 1777: “Resolved, That the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation.” Perhaps if the commissioners had entrusted the design to a woman—to Betsy, say—she might have come up with something more tasteful than the gaudy hodge-podge of stars and stripes. But the crowd of spangles served to soothe the political sensitivities of thirteen discrete states, still distrustful of the beast called federation.
    In 1795, with Vermont and Kentucky joining the union, a new law provided for fifteen stars and fifteen stripes. The U.S. flag was up to twenty stars and twenty stripes before Congress determined it had gotten way too crowded and came up with the idea of holding the stripes to thirteen to commemorate the original colonies, while letting the stars multiply as they might. So a sop was thrown to the first thirteen states, like self-satisfied little D.A.R. members, while room was made for the newcomers.
    At that time, 1818, no one imagined adding thirty more stars, but there have been fifty almost as long as I can remember. A shy boy from Lancaster, Ohio, came up with the fifty-star design for a high school project in 1958. For good measure, he next developed a pattern for fifty-one stars, just in case.
    Even knowing this history, I think of the fifty-star flag as permanent. It is easy for us baby boomers and later generations to forget that the flag is designed to be a fluid, growing thing. Like the country.

        During rendition of the national anthem when the flag is displayed . . . persons in uniform
        should render the military salute at the first note of the anthem and retain this position
        until the last note.

                  —Title 36, U.S.C., Ch. 10, Sec.171

I never owned a flag during my years in the Air Force. I didn’t need to. From the moment I was sworn in until I retired, the flag was present in my life every day. The first lessons I learned at Officer Training School had to do with proper courtesies to the flag.
    The base flag was raised early every morning and taken down with ceremony in the late afternoon. If we were outside when retreat sounded, as soon as we heard the first notes of “The Star-Spangled Banner” from the base loudspeaker, we were to stop what we were doing. If we were driving, we were to pull over and stop the car. If we were walking toward a car or into a building or jogging on a track or biking, we were to stop and turn in the direction of the flag, even if we couldn’t see it (hint: it is the direction the music is coming from). As soon as the music began to play, we snapped to attention, saluted, and held the salute till that last lingering note of the braaaaaave had vanished. Only then could we drop the salute and continue on our way, start up interrupted conversations, pick up scattered papers.
    If we were inside, however, no matter how clearly the notes sounded through an open window, we could ignore them. We could continue phone conversations, reviewing reports, reprimanding or recognizing a subordinate, end-of-work beers with coworkers. Or we could be waiting, ready to spring out the door as soon as retreat was over. The hallways next to the outside doors were clogged with folks around five every evening, shuffling impatiently like schoolchildren waiting for the bell to ring.
    One day, as a first lieutenant, I left work well before the afternoon retreat only to discover my car had a flat tire. Cursing and slamming, I pulled out my jack and wrench and knelt down on the concrete. I was struggling to loosen a lug nut when I heard an introductory drumroll. I didn’t even have my hat on, having thrown it to the ground to keep it from falling off my bent head. I was tired, I was cranky, and I just wanted to go home. I figured it wouldn’t be a stretch for someone watching me to assume I was too involved in this messy task to hear the sound of retreat.
    So I stayed on the ground, hunched over my tire. Not for long though. Shiny black shoes topped with perfectly creased blue trousers appeared in front of my nose. A pleasant but firm voice said, “Suppose we stop and pay our respects to the flag. Then I’ll help you with that.”
    I scrambled to my feet, hoping my posture and expression adequately expressed the confusion and surprise of someone so focused on the task at hand she hadn’t heard the music blaring out. “Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”
    The officer, a lieutenant colonel I had never seen before, didn’t look at me. He stood proudly at attention, hand held steady in a salute to a flag he couldn’t see through the massive headquarters building in front of us. Abashed and disheveled, I followed his lead. When the last note ended, the officer dropped his salute, picked up the wrench, and replaced my tire without a word of rebuke.
    Several weeks later at the officers’ open mess, our two-star general held a commander’s call, a meeting to lay out policy, talk about the state of the headquarters, pin decorations on individuals, and do whatever else he wanted to do. It was Friday afternoon and by the time the general dismissed us, duty hours were over. While some officers planned to stay at the club for happy hour, most were ready to get home for the weekend. The club foyer was packed. I had to squeeze my way through the crowd to reach the door. Then I heard those unmistakable notes in the distance and realized why so many people were hanging around. They were participating in the venerable Air Force tradition of avoiding retreat. It was gray and chilly outside, and since I was junior to virtually everyone I saw, I was tempted to follow their example and linger in the hallway.
    But as I looked at the blue uniforms gathered around the doorway and the gleam of gold and silver rank on their shoulders, a word sprang into my head. It had nothing to do with patriotism or respect. Unseemly, I thought. This is unseemly. My sense of propriety was offended.
    “Excuse me. Excuse me.” I pushed my way through the captains and majors and colonels blocking the door. Outside I put on my hat, stationed myself on the walkway—the only person there—and sprang to attention. I brought my hand up to a salute and held it there, while the music continued to play. The wind blustered, and drizzle coated my glasses. From the corner of my eye, I could tell people were gaping out at me through the warm club’s glass doors. Suddenly it didn’t seem quite so grand to act in a seemly manner. I began to feel foolish, green, naive, but I was stuck with what I was doing. There was no way out till the music ended, and it seemed exceptionally slow tonight. Were they playing two verses?
    Actually, I couldn’t have been standing there long when I heard the door open and a man’s firm footsteps coming out. He positioned himself next to me. In my peripheral vision I could see a blue sleeve move up into a salute, but that was the most I could tell about my partner in retreat. So now there were two of us saps on the walkway as the patriotic strains played on and on.
    When the music ended, I dropped my salute and turned to leave. Then I saw who was standing next to me. I was so startled I almost forgot to salute him. Almost but not quite. My hand knew its business and shot up on its own. “G-good evening, General.”
    He returned the salute, grunted, “Evening, Lieutenant,” and strode away.
    When the coast was clear and the general (an uncertain and potentially dangerous kind of creature) had reached his car, the doors to the club opened behind me. People began to slip out, slowly and cautiously.
    It would be nice to report that the general remembered me afterward and helped boost my career because of my impulse toward propriety. In truth, he was never a very pleasant man, and the few other times I had dealings with him, I failed to impress. Still I carry this mental picture of the general and myself—the headquarters’ most senior officer and (possibly) most junior officer—standing at proud attention during the retreat in a gray drizzle while the rest of the headquarters stared at us through the O’ Club windows. The glow of self-satisfaction has stayed with me for years.
    My imagination may have added the drizzle to the memory.

        The flag should not be . . . embroidered, printed, or otherwise impressed on such items
        as cushions, handkerchiefs, napkins, boxes, or anything intended to be discarded
        after temporary use.

                  —“Flag Etiquette,”

I support the Women in Military Service for America (WIMSA), a monument on the outskirts of Arlington Cemetery. Every year, in their request for donations, I receive address labels in an attractive red, white, and blue pattern. They also send envelope seals, which I appreciate even more, as every passing year, I find envelope adhesive a little less reliable. The last few years, WIMSA has taken to sending out seals in the form of the U.S. flag. They are useless to me. I can’t bring myself to attach one to the envelope flap without picturing the recipient ripping the tiny paper flag in two.
    I am probably being ridiculous, but there it is. I can’t make myself use them. I can’t submit those little flags, though they’re nothing but paper facsimiles, to that violent sundering. I can, on the other hand, throw them away intact. No burning or burial for these. Such is my inconsistency. I think magically about the flag—but only when it suits me.

        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.

                  —Title 36, U.S.C., Ch. 10, Sec. 176(k)

The Flag Code, codifying respect for the flag, was adopted in 1923. It became public law in 1942. It defines proper care and usage of the flag but imposes no penalties for misuse. It is a gentle law.
    In 2007, here in Asheville, North Carolina, two flag-related incidents received a lot of press and public attention. In one, a couple was arrested for hanging a flag upside down and attaching political messages to it. Hanging the flag upside down is an international distress signal, which, they claimed, was appropriate as the country was in distress. Technically, they were detained for resisting the police officer who came to arrest them for defacing the flag. They were released almost immediately with the written equivalent of a mumbled apology for the officer’s “overzealousness.”
    In the second incident, the week before the Fourth of July, the city council ordered a fireworks company to remove their flag because its display broke city ordinances about size and distance from the street. The local paper was flooded with letters from outraged flag patriots protesting the condition of this nation when the flag—the flag!—couldn’t be flown freely. Only a handful pointed out that the flag was being improperly, disrespectfully displayed for advertising purposes.
    Later, the city council considered creating local laws to enforce the Flag Code, to turn its shoulds into musts. Civil libertarians pointed out that such laws would likely be unconstitutional, so we haven’t heard anything about that proposal in awhile. Just as well. The flag is strong. It doesn’t need our protection.
    Twenty years ago, as an Air Force captain, I attended a meeting of Junior ROTC cadets at the base high school. My commander, a lieutenant colonel, had dragged me along to help him answer questions these kids might have about joining the Air Force, maybe to encourage the girls.
    I don’t remember much of the discussion or the Q&A, except one question, more of a statement really. An eager boy stood up. “What do you think about people who burn the flag? Shouldn’t there be an amendment to make that illegal?”
    The other students clapped and cheered. I was passionately opposed to the amendment currently being parleyed about for political purposes (that was the late 1980s, but some things just won’t go away). I bit my tongue, though, and respectfully allowed my boss to speak first.
    He waited patiently for the applause to die down, then said, “I don’t like flag burning, not even as a form of protest. Personally I think it’s tacky. But then, it also doesn’t happen nearly as much as you might think. And here’s the thing. Just because we don’t like something doesn’t mean we have to make it illegal. When you become an officer, you will take an oath ‘to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.’ Not the flag, the Constitution. So you need to be pretty cautious about supporting amendments that undermine basic freedoms included in the Bill of Rights.”
    He turned to me. “But perhaps Captain Dietrich has a different point of view to share with you.”
    I had nothing to add to what he said, so I smiled and shook my head. But the kids didn’t look convinced. Something they could touch and see every day must have seemed so much easier to defend than complex concepts written in dry words in fading ink.
    I still think about that meeting whenever I hear someone speaking passionately about “our military men and women who have taken an oath to defend our flag.” I don’t know any military member who took that oath. On my part, I swore to defend the Constitution, “against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” (Those italics are definitely mine.)
    Domestic desecration, that is what I call American flag idolatry nowadays. Wherever I go, the American flag flies and lies all over the place. It is used as decoration, as fashion, as advertising, as a test for patriotism. It is displayed on T-shirts, jackets, bikinis, and thongs; sewn onto the back pockets of blue jeans; used to cover pillows and umbrellas, cell phone covers and purses; dangled from lapel pins, earrings, and pendants; attached as decals on skateboards, bikes, helmets, motorcycles. Small tattered flags whip around on car antennas. Monster flags advertise used car sales.
    All those abused flags—I want to gather them up and dispose of them in a dignified way, properly and with great respect. I am grown up now, so this time I would be a flag burner. I would build a bonfire big enough to light the nation.

        Folding the Flag: The two people begin by folding the flag in half lengthwise and then again
        in half lengthwise, keeping the blue field on the outside. Then, while one person holds the flag
        by the blue field, the other makes a triangular fold in the opposite end and continues folding
        in triangles until nothing shows but the blue field.

                  —Boy Scout Handbook

After twenty years in the military, I retired. That is when I received my second flag, neatly encased in a wooden shadowbox. It sits in my office bookcase today, the only memento I display from my Air Force career. I am not one to decorate with walls full of plaques and certificates. The shadowbox serves to summarize my twenty years adequately.
    The box is made of oak, appropriately shaped as a pentagon. In the glass-covered display, my decorations hang in the center, the medals that represent assignments, accomplishments, success, or at least, lack of failure. On each side of the medals, rank insignia track my career also: gold and silver lieutenant’s bars, the double bars of the captain, the gold oak leaves of the major, the silver leaves of the lieutenant colonel.
    Above my career so tersely encapsulated, a flag nestles in its own nook, folded into a triangle. This particular flag was flown over the U.S. Capitol on April 5, 2000, the year I retired in a joint ceremony with my husband, Lynn. The demand for flags flown over the Capitol to honor military retirees and others is so great that the Capitol, I have heard, has a detail whose job is to raise and lower flags all day. The flag I received flapped freely in the wild air for seconds only, received the detail’s weary salute, then was firmly (though slowly—protocol still counts) lowered and folded into the triangle I have in my shadowbox now. Like a captive eagle.
    I am glad I received the flag this way, not removed from a coffin. I have seen how widows and parents, sons and daughters, have accepted the flag presented to them at their loved one’s graveside. How they hold it pressed to the breast, both arms clutching it, as if it offered some warmth, as if it poured balm into an aching heart. But I may be wrong. It may scorch instead. I don’t know how many go home to place their flags in frames, to hang them with honor. How many shove them into a drawer somewhere and forget. How many light a fire in the fireplace and fling the dense triangle into it.

        [The flag speaks.] “I am what you make me; nothing more. I swing before your eyes
        as a bright gleam of color, a symbol of yourself.”

                  —Franklin K. Lane, Secretary of the Interior, in his Flag Day address, 1914

The flag has its own holiday, Flag Day, June 14. B. J. Cigrand, a schoolteacher from Wisconsin, initiated it on June 14, 1885, to commemorate the 108th anniversary of the Flag Resolution of 1777. He considered it celebrating the flag’s birthday, as if it were a sentient being, a very old grandfather perhaps. His idea quickly spread to New York and Pennsylvania, then throughout the United States. It became a national day of commemoration under President Truman in 1949.
    In old-fashioned books, stories abound about children performing in Flag Day exercises at school, with patriotic songs, recitations, and proud, red-faced parents coming in off the farm for the occasion. The innocent patriotism of it. In my lifetime, I have never once celebrated Flag Day.
    When we moved to Asheville in 2002, the house we bought had a holder installed on the deck, so Lynn suggested we buy a flag. I hesitated. It was less than a year since the Twin Towers had fallen, and in that time the flag had become politicized, the symbol of a fervent übernationalism sweeping across the country. All that flag-waving seemed to hide the Constitution—those bright colors obscuring the drab words. I saw it beginning to mean something that I could not take pride in.
    And what would the neighbors think? What message would flying a flag send to passersby? Red-blooded Americans here? Love-it-or-leave-it chauvinists? Solid citizens? Patriotic show-offs? Proud? Fanatical? Ignorant? Sincere? Was it possible anymore to fly a flag and have it mean merely that, no other messages involved? Was it ever possible?
    After I thought about it, though, I realized Lynn’s instinct was right. The flag still belonged to us, as much as to anyone else. It still symbolized the country I loved and wanted to believe in, a nation based on the rule of law, based on the Constitution. I would not let others define patriotism for me. I would not let them steal the flag from me.
    So now, over forty-five years since I purchased my twenty-five-cent library flag, I have my third flag. We display it on national holidays, including Flag Day if we remember it. We fly it on warm sunny days. We fly it on September 11. We fly it just because we feel like it. We know the rules. We are careful and respectful of our flag. We don’t put it out in the rain. We bring it in at night. We never let it touch the ground.

Cheryl Dietrich is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel living in Asheville, North Carolina, with her husband, Lynn. Her nonfiction pieces about incidents in her Air Force career have appeared previously in The Gettysburg Review and Shenandoah. Her essay “Better a Good Warrior” will appear in Birthed from Scorched Hearts, an anthology from Fulcrum Press about women and war. She is currently working on a memoir covering her Air Force career.

“Decoding the Flag” appears in our Autumn 2009 issue.