The flag flies above the hardware store. There isn’t much of a breeze today. It moves with each gust, then becomes slack.
Flags hang from all sorts of places. They adorn bank buildings, supermarkets, schools, Kmarts, gas stations, beauty salons, auto shops, and libraries. There’s one on my front porch, too. I walk past it every day.
At the entrance to the hardware store, just beneath the flagpole, are Boy Scouts. I don’t exactly know what they’re doing. When I pass they look like they’re busy hard-selling a woman who’s buying some hanging ferns.
I walk through the store and get what I need—some screws, a replacement electrical breaker, and a half-inch drill bit. Then I check out.
My cashier wears a lapel pin on her vest that is a miniature American flag. Another pin bears the Army logo. Another is a mini POW/MIA flag.
“I like your pins,” I tell her.
“I just got outta the Army. I miss it. I wish I woulda stayed in. It’s hard going back to this kinda life.”
She spent her formative years in the service, you could say. As a child, she knew she wanted to make it a career, ever since the first time she saw her father wear his dress-blues.
She was born on a military base. She was raised hearing the national anthem once per day over a loudspeaker. Her brother is Army. Her father is a veteran.
I thank her, and I tell her to thank her brother and father for me.
I step outside. The Boy Scouts ask if I need help to my truck. I don’t have anything but the one bag.
Then again, I write a column for a living. I’m always looking for things to write about. I hand them the bag.
One carries it. One follows.
I ask what they are raising money for. I am ready to take out my wallet and contribute to a good cause.
I was a Scout once, it’s a brotherhood. Also, I am pretty good with a campfire.
But the boys tell me they aren’t raising money, they just want to help.
“Aren’t you trying to earn a merit badge?” I ask.
They shake their heads. “No sir, we’re here with our dad, just being helpful.”
Another says, “Mostly, we just lift heavy things for old people who can’t.”
I try to donate to them. They almost gag. Accepting money for kindness is against a Scout’s honor.
“No sir,” says one. “We couldn’t take that.”
We shake hands. I thank them for helping an old man.
Then I drive through town and I notice more than I usually do. I see a man in a motorized wheelchair, rolling along the side of the road. His cap is dark blue, with a battleship on the front.
I see a building in the distance with an eagle painted on the side.
I see little flags in the yard of a business that sells used furniture.
I see bumper stickers with the Stars and Stripes, too many to count.
My grandfather gave his entire youth to the service of country, and his adulthood. My uncles saw Vietnam. My mother was born on a military base.
It all reminds me of a few nights ago, in Atlanta. I attended a baseball game. When we sang the national anthem, a swarm of people took the field. They were carrying a rolled-up flag the way firemen carry long fire hoses. The biggest flag I’ve ever seen. They unfurled it. The thing stretched from right field to left field, and over the pitcher’s mound.
When we sang “O say does that Star Spangled Banner yet wave…” they started waving Old Glory. It moved like a river, swelling and falling.
And 41,000 people roared.
The man next to me saluted throughout the song, he sang with a loud voice. He was young. He had a tattoo on his forearm that bore the seal of the United States Marines. He had stiff posture. A hard face. A wild black beard. He cried.
And when a B-52 bomber flew over the stadium, shredding the sky in half, so did I.
After the anthem, I shook the young man’s hand. I said, “Thank you for all you’ve done for us.”
He seemed glad that I said it. He wiped moisture from his eyes and said, “I’d do it all over again, buddy.”
It goes unnoticed sometimes, but it is always there. It’s displayed on the roofs of municipal buildings, churchyards, hardware stores, and on the right sleeves of adolescent Boy Scouts everywhere.
Each front porch on my street has one. Yours probably does, too. The flag hanging beside my own door has been there a long time. And it always will be.
I just thought I’d tell you why.