Bonfires, Flags, and America the Beautiful
By Max Black
bonfire was burning when we arrived. I was ferrying a carload
of giggling teenaged ROTC cadets to their first flag retirement
ceremony, held at the local American Legion outpost. The kids,
my son and two of his friends, were resplendent in their newly
pressed uniforms. We cracked jokes and laughed with each other
as we drove into the Legion parking lot.
It was a crisp, clear November night. We live in a coastal
community, and the Legion is located on an island separated
from the mainland by the Intracoastal Waterway, so the air
carries a faint salt tang. We parked in the sandy lot beside
a row of cars, SUVs, and pickup trucks. The cadets piled out
of the car to join their fellows. Nothing much was happening
yet; we were early. Night was falling fast, and the temperature
was dropping. I stood beside a bearded vet in denim overalls,
leaning on a cane. We silently contemplated the scene before
The Legion outpost is small and relatively shabby; a small
concrete blockhouse and a smaller wooden outbuilding on a
tiny plot of ground behind a grocery store, on the edge of
a quiet neighborhood. The sky was clear. A light ocean breeze
barely disturbed the smoke rising from the bonfire. Inside
the building, a number of aging Legion members listened to
one of their members speak from a podium; behind them, a football
game played out silently from a television mounted over the
tiny bar. The shuffleboard table was covered with a plastic
sheet. Outside perhaps two dozen cadets milled about, waiting
for the ceremonies to start. A knot of parents and community
observers stood quietly talking among themselves. A long,
folding table bore several hundred carefully folded flags,
Behind a small rostrum hung a set of Legion banners. One
of the Legion members was fiddling with the microphone on
the rostrum; periodically, electronic howls sheared through
the night air. The music was provided by a single, aging cabinet
speaker, treating us to a variety of old R&B and country songs,
along with oddities like "Puppy Love." One of my son's friends
drifted close to where I stood. "Man, if I were one of these
flags," he said, "I wouldn't want to be burned up to Donny
Osmond songs." He grinned and waved in a vague gesture that
encompassed everything around us. "I guess it goes with the
place; this whole thing is pretty cheesy." I replied, "Just
think, serve your country for a few years and you can be eligible
to join up." "Yeah," he snapped back, "you too can serve your
country and end up sitting in a concrete house drinking beer
and watching football." He moved off to join his friends;
soon the company commander was calling them to order and getting
them ready to begin the ceremonies.
I moved to stand closer to the fire, trying to soak up some
of the warmth without getting in the way of the Legion members
tending it. I saw that they were feeding the fire with sawn-off
tree limbs and cardboard boxes, most of them imprinted with
beer and liquor logos. Great, I mused, these flags will be
burned with the help of Heineken boxes.
The ceremonies began with a minimum of fuss. One of the
older members began by reading a short piece on the sanctity
of the flag. The color guard, four cadets including my son,
went through their maneuvers without a hitch. A Girl Scout
sang the National Anthem in a pure, sweet voice. We all recited
the Pledge of Allegiance. Two cadets made their way through
the poem "Old Glory:" I am the flag of the United States
of America. I am Old Glory. I fly atop the world's
tallest buildings. I stand watch in America's halls
of justice. I fly majestically over institutions of
learning. I stand guard with power in the world.
Look up and see me. A cadet played "Taps" on his bugle.
Beside the bonfire rested a long, low metal grate. Two cadets
picked up a flag from atop the stack, ceremoniously unfolded
it, and lay it reverently on the grate. They saluted the flag
and marched back to the back of the column of cadets. Two
more cadets laid another flag on the grate. Soon dozens of
flags lay one atop the other. Some were smaller than washcloths,
obviously having seen duty perched on a car antenna. Some
were bigger than blankets. Some were cheap polyester or cotton,
others were once-beautiful banners of silk and brocade. Most
were tattered, dirty, and shredded. Some looked as if they
had been used to degrease engines. Some were in such poor
shape that the cadets had trouble unfolding them properly;
tattered remnants of single stripes hung off the grate. Behind
the rostrum, a tape of six or seven patriotic songs played
on an endless loop: a funereal version of "America the Beautiful,"
a version of "Anchors Aweigh" with too many trumpet flourishes.
One of the Legion members sang quietly every time "God Bless
America" came around.
After a respectable pile had been lain to rest, the cadets
stood back while two Legion members hosed the entire stack
down with kerosene. Then they lugged the grate and its cargo
over to the bonfire, where they sat the grate over the blaze.
In seconds, the kerosene-soaked flags went up in a wash of
yellow flame that lit the entire area. I could feel the heat
break over me like an ocean wave. Sparks from burning cotton
wafted into the air; drips of melting synthetic fabric dripped,
hot and varicolored, into the sand.
What I didn't expect was the wave of emotion that rolled
through me like heat from the bonfire, now reaching high and
heavy into the sky. The mask of cynicism and cheap irony I
wore seemed to burn away along with the flags themselves.
I stared into the fire, watching these hundred or so flags
burn away into ash and nothingness; the crowd stood silent
around and behind me, staring, like me, into the flames.
I have never been a flag worshiper. I have never supported
the flag-burning amendments proposed by one politician or
another, usually proposed, in my view, to bolster their own
pretense of patriotism among the voters rather than coming
from any real love of country. I have never been angered by
video of foreigners burning American flags in protest against
the actions of this country; more often than not, I understood
their grievances and sympathized with them, even if I thought
the flag-burnings themselves were childish stunts for the
TV cameras. I have always been a proud liberal, above such
petty arguments as reverence for a flag.
None of that changed as I watched the flags burning in the
night. But my political and social beliefs have always resided
on a bedrock of patriotism, of love of country, of a love
for America and its people, its guiding principles, its honor
and its traditions of democracy and freedom for all. That
bedrock patriotism responded to those burning flags before
me, those flags flown by conservatives and liberals, of people
who live in my community, of Americans.
I looked around me. I was surrounded by Americans - blacks,
whites, Hispanics, Native Americans, Asians. Some were Legion
members, many of them aging veterans of half-forgotten foreign
wars. Some were cadets, teenagers readying themselves to take
their places alongside these grizzled veterans. Some were
parents; some of them would, perhaps sooner than they would
expect, stand over their child's grave while a bugler played
"Taps," trying to come to terms with the sacrifice their country
had asked of them. Many of them, I'm sure, would find my politics
repugnant, worthy of argument or even attack. Many of them,
I'm equally sure, would not.
But we were all Americans, standing together, observing
in sacred silence the passing of these flags into honorable,
flame-shrouded retirement. And I began to think of our current
leaders and their actions, taken in the name of this country.
Soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan every day in
flag-draped coffins, killed not for the honor and glory of
the United States, not for the cause of democracy, peace,
and freedom, but for these men and women's dreams of avarice
and power. Killed for corporate greed. Killed for oil. Killed
for a mad dream of global domination that is already coming
to pieces in their grasping, lying hands.
And I knew that the enemies of this country were not those
desperate, maddened foreigners fighting for their own deluded
dreams of glory and religious domination. The most deadly
enemies of this country were those self-same men and women
lolling on the couches of power in our nation's capital like
so many Caligulas, sending our loyal children off to die for
their own demented purposes. And I knew that the reverse was
also true: that the most powerful enemies of these power-mad
satraps and oligarchs gorging themselves on American largesse
in Washington, and in the capitals of our fifty states, were
not foreign terrorists or foreign governments, but the citizens
of our own country. The Americans that stood alongside me
that November night watching the ceremonial burning of our
nation's flags as we retired them from honorable service.
All of us, rich and poor, liberal and conservative, Christian
and not, Republican and Democrat and independent.
Be warned, George Bush. Take heed, Rumsfeld and Rice and
Cheney and Perle and all of your cronies in the halls of power.
The real Americans, all 284 million of us, are your enemies,
as you are the enemies of America. We are coming for you.
We will pull you out of your gilded holes and expose you for
the traitors and criminals you are. We will reverse your schemes
of power and domination, and restore this country to its place
as the world's leader of democracy and freedom. And our flag
will wave proudly over the ashes of your ambitions.
The ceremony took hours to complete; over 500 flags were
honorably retired, including a separate contingent of other
flags - state flags, POW flags, and even a Union Jack. When
the ceremony was over and the cadets were dismissed, my charges
piled into the car and we all drove home.
"When I am torn into strips and used as bandages
for my wounded comrades on the battlefield, when I am flown
at half-mast to honor my soldiers, or when I lie in the trembling
arms of a grieving parent at the grave of their fallen son
or daughter, I am proud. Dear God, long may I wave."
- From "Old Glory," written by Howard Schnauber, U.S.
Marine Corps, 1994