Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Deep and Wide

Oh, I worked hard today.  Have you ever been asked to do something that doesn't quite fit your character? 

No, I wasn't asked to rob a bank or anything. 

I wrote an article.  It was a form of fluff and I hate writing fluff.  Here's the deal.  I wasn't going to be able to write about what I was really thinking.   I was asked to write an article about retiring American flags for Veteran's Day.  Now, that's some serious fluff. 

It's not quite the right word, is it?

The reason I call it fluff is that I wanted to write about how I once attended one of these flag retirement ceremonies and I couldn't help but notice that we burned all these flags.  Yes, that's what I said.  We burned them.  Some people want to outlaw burning the American flag in protest, but here we stood watching our Honor Guard burn flags.  Hmm.  Tell me there is no irony in that.  I wanted to write about that.

How many people would I have enraged had I noted that thought in my article? 

Then, you throw a bunch of symbolism into the mix.  I wasn't going to include in my article the religious symbolism that was attributed to the folding of the flag.  I forget which organization created that, but it isn't part of what the government controls.  There is still some level of separation of church and state.  And I'm telling you, the government has some rules about the creation of, the design of, the flying of, and the retiring of the American flag.  Most of the symbolism is left up to us.

Did you know that there are flagologists?  They are called vexillologists.  They study the history, the symbolism, and the use of flags.  Still, it was hard to get something ultimately quotable. 

I even asked a guy I know who is a veteran why flags are retired the way they are and why he thinks we celebrate Veteran's Day. 

"It's the least we can do," he said.  Oh no, now I've insulted him and have to go apologize. 

But that's not a quote I can use either.

I was having trouble coming up with anything credible.  Honor, duty, service.  I didn't want them to be just words.  I didn't want them to be fluff. 

See, it's been all around me for the past couple of weeks.  I was asked to attend a military burial.  Oh man, when they handed that flag to the family, I got tears in my eyes.  This was it.  This was the real meaning of the flag.  It had to be.  But could I write about what that really meant?  I'm not sure I was entitled.

I suppose I've already told you that I'm reading 'One Bullet Away' by Nathaniel Fick.  He was an officer in the Marines.  He went to Afghanistan and Iraq.  He wrote an incredible book.  I'd like to know what he thinks about the American flag.  Does it make him tear up?  He uses the words honor, duty, and service in a different way than I understand them. 

Yet, when I wrote about the ultimate sacrifice, it sounded plastic.  I don't know about the ultimate sacrifice. Not really.


Oh, I hadn't thought about that part of my story.  I may know about the ultimate sacrifice, but it just isn't obvious. 

You see, my dad worked as an engineer for the Navy.  He and his buddies were exposed to microwave technology before there were microwave ovens in every home.  I remember him talking about how one of his techs used to crawl into the dish to get warm.  I remember him saying how it couldn't be good for him.  And then that man was dead.  In fact, my dad worked with at least four other men who were diagnosed with some form of cancer, of the brain, of the lungs, and like him, of the colon.  I know that it's possible it was a coincidence, but I don't think so.  These men worked in conditions whose risks were unknown at the time.  Later, OSHA came around and made rules about how they were to handle chemicals and laboratory conditions, but not back then. 

No, I'm not going to sue. 

I just wonder if my father didn't make a sacrifice to his job, to the Navy, even to his country.  Could be.  It's just that, even after forty years, it's hard to get my head around that.

So I'm back to writing platitudes about sacrifice.  Besides, the people who wanted me to write the article have no interest in what sounds like a conspiracy theory.  On top of that, it isn't just for the government that sacrifices were made in building our country.  Think about the fact that people died to build the Brooklyn bridge and the Grand Coulee dam.  Marie Curie died to research radiation.  Sacrifice is there, throughout history.

So just what does that flag represent? 

It's a hard one, isn't it?  It seems a whole lot easier to look at a veteran to say 'Thank you for your service, for your sacrifices.'  Then you can think of the horrors they might have faced, the decisions they had to live with, the commands they wanted to reject to save their own lives.  Even that's not so easy, is it?

Was I really going to write about the Civil war photo of the man who'd lost both arms that I saw on the Internet today?  Was I really going to try to imagine his life after the war? I'm not capable of understanding what that would be like.

That sacrifice is part of what lies in the symbolism of the flag.  It is true. 

But then there's the strife inherent in our flag.  Yes, I mean strife.  Our poets aren't jailed for voicing their opinions.  Our protesters aren't executed for burning the flag.  That's part of what lies there, despite the fact that some people want to outlaw burning the flag, despite the irony in the way we retire our flags with respect.  A friend of mine made me laugh once when as we talked about the right to free speech.  He said, "Here in the United States, we have the right to be a total asshole if we want." 

And the flag is about democracy as well.  It's about the fact that no matter how hard we try, ours is an imperfect democracy.  Just look at how ineffectual our leaders have been rendered by all the back-stabbing and undermining.  A wing of one party wants our economy to fail just to prove that the other party is in the wrong.  What kind of leadership is that?  Oh, I am sure they don't want me writing about that in my article. Yet democracy is a huge part of the symbolism in the American flag.

Do you see why this was so hard for me?  What could I say? 


Plastic words about honor, duty, service.  I hoped that insincerity didn't leak into my article.  Isn't it funny that it sounds that way when something is just too deep and wide and overwhelming to really talk about?

Thank you for listening, jb


No comments:

Post a Comment