Raising Old Glory

“Our responsibility to the flag” in the Philadelphia Inquirer (July 2, 2004).

My father was a trash collector supreme. One never knew what he would find on his nightly walk back from the trolley stop. A toy kitchen one day, a bicycle the next. Of all the things he liberated, the greatest was a 20-by-30-foot American flag.

The flag, meant for display in an urban setting where it fit in with the high-rises, had been used just once – as the backdrop at a corporate convention for the Insurance Company of America, where my father worked. My father freed that flag from an office closet, brought it home, and initiated the annual ritual of raising Old Glory on our suburban street every July Fourth. One rope was pulled taut through a third-floor window, the other was wrapped around a tree branch high across the street. With a few brothers on the third floor, and my father and a few more brothers across the street, we engaged in a patriotic game of tug-of-war until the flag soared high above Forrest Avenue in Drexel Hill.

Those Fourths taught me a lot. How to tie a knot. How to fold the flag. More important, it taught me what this country and our flag mean to people. Traffic – both foot and auto – increased on those special days when people came to see “that house with the flag.” Veterans would stand and salute the flag as they made their way down the street to the cemetery where their war buddies were laid to rest.

In 1987, to join in the bicentennial celebration for the U.S. Constitution, my father decided to keep the flag raised all weekend. Floodlights were positioned in the grass, and the Stars and Stripes waved brightly in the darkness. At 2 in the morning, however, our household woke up to the sound of snapping rope and nylon on grass. Vandals had pulled the flag down and dragged it halfway across the street.

My father’s heart was broken that night. And as an 11-year-old boy, I had to ask myself a truly adult question, perhaps for the first time: Why would someone do this to the flag?

My reaction that day was akin to the way most Americans felt after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Why would someone do this to us, particularly to 3,000 civilians who were simply pursuing their livelihoods? How could someone hate us so much as to sacrifice his own life so that he could take the lives of Americans? Who was to blame? Where were they hiding?

Like an 11-year-old boy wondering why vandals would deface the American flag, we as a country must ask ourselves what causes the hatred that incites terrorists to take their own lives in order to take ours. What do these people feel when they look at the American flag? Why do some see freedom while others see imperialism? Why do some see hope in capitalism and free enterprise while others see materialism and greed?

As Americans, we need to consider the responsibilities that come with our strength. That means providing for the less fortunate among us; supporting an education system that serves the poor as well as the rich; protecting the environment; and living out the belief that this is the land of liberty and justice for all.

Likewise, we have a responsibility to the world. If Sept. 11 didn’t already cure us of the thought, let’s do away now with the notion that if something going on in the world doesn’t affect us, then we don’t need to know about it. When I look at the 50 stars on the flag, I see not only the immigrants who made this country what it is today, but I also see the immigrants who continue to shape and mold who we are. We are a nation of the world, and we must act accordingly.

Hunger should be our concern, not just here but worldwide. Human rights, whether those of women or children or religious or ethnic groups or whoever, deserve our eternal vigilance. How we share the world’s limited resources must be an issue we address fairly and unselfishly. And yes, how we use our military might must always be something we grapple with, however painful the process may be.

As I salute Old Glory this weekend, I will see the ideals of freedom and equality. But just as I asked myself the “why” question when our flag was vandalized in my boyhood, I ask myself now whether this symbol of America will come to represent hope, justice and generosity to the world in generations to come – or just an image of might?

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