We used to go there on every Memorial Day—a small national cemetery off the road a piece in the woods. It was usually warm; the woods, deep, green, and moist. We would walk down a dirt path to the stone wall encircling the graves, sometimes passing others who had just visited there before us. My wife and I would tell the children to spread the flowers around, making sure each grave was marked with a red rose. Then we would walk back down the trail, leaving a flower at a lone marker near the edge of the woods. The marker was for a young man—about 20 or so, as I remember. Usually, the local Sons of Confederate Veterans had beat us to it, leaving flowers and a small Confederate Battle Flag to mark the spot where Clinton Hatcher was buried. The marker read: “He died defending his native state.”
My two older children would ask me questions about the war. It was hard, trying to explain why we needed to remember them all as I watched the Stars and Stripes wave over the graves. I often wondered how Clinton Hatcher had felt, being forced by circumstance to take up arms against her. And the questions of the different flags and of what patriotism really means came up more than once. I remember telling the kids that Clinton Hatcher might have felt that those who had ordered the invasion of his state had taken the old flag away from him: Virginia was the home he was bound to defend. And I would tell them I hated that war, and that I couldn’t think of many we had been in that we had really needed to be. But the flags remain: They are about who we are, no matter what the powers-that-be might otherwise want us to think. So we remember, though not always for the reasons they want us to.
But that was in Virginia. We moved home to Texas for good the summer before last, and I couldn’t think of someplace close by to hold our little ceremony last year. So we stayed home on Memorial Day.
One TV station showed war movies from dawn to dusk. The ads featured the famous photo of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima. Those ads, together with a “news break” barrage of video clips about the “War on Terrorism,” got me thinking about flags again—and about what the powers-that-be are doing to us and to Old Glory.
Judging by the chatter on the idiot box, it appears America’s War on Terror has little to do with retribution for the September 11 attacks. “We,” we are told by the usual suspects, are making the world safe for Diversity (it’s always a big D), feminism (women should be voting in Afghanistan, not wearing burqas), and pornography (“free speech”). Anyway, Islam is a “religion of peace” (we mustn’t ever, ever think of ourselves as a Christian nation). I began to feel a little like Clinton Hatcher must have felt, like they were taking the flag away from me and my country with it.
I turn off the TV and walk upstairs. On a shelf in my office lies a 48-star flag. It had accompanied a War Department letter to my grandparents stating that a certain young man was presumed dead. I touch the corner of the flag and wonder whether I should hang it up somewhere.
I sit down in my office chair, staring at the red, white, and blue banner, remembering a cold day in January when I noticed the big American flag was down. She had waved in front of a builder’s office down the road, an outfit putting up paint-by-numbers houses as fast as the “undocumented workers” could slap them together. Like all such hucksters, they wrap everything in flags. American flags. Texas flags.
But the flag was down. I almost went on and forgot about it. I don’t get agitated the way I used to, say, 30 years ago, when people started using flags for underwear, tablecloths, bath towels, shower curtains—even burning them. American flags. Confederate flags. Texas flags. So the patriotic builder’s flag had fallen down. Long may Diversity wave.
I almost let it go. Almost.
There’s ice on the road, and the wind is blowing something fierce. I pull the hood of my coat over my head and hang on to it, gripping it tightly with one hand and shivering. My fingers are so numb by the time I reach the flagpole that I don’t even feel the steaming pitcher of hot water in my other hand. My glasses are fogging up.
And there she lies, crumpled and frozen solid. I pull out the folds as best I can, pouring the steaming water on the icy banner and the catch, frozen shut, still holding one end of the drooping flag to the frigid pole.
It’s quite a job to get her loose from the frozen, broken line. I can’t feel anything at all. When I get her loose, I walk over to the office and stand in the doorway, protecting myself from the howling wind.
There’s no right way to do this that I know of. So I fold her up as best I can and sit her gingerly on the doorstep.
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