On Flags and Patriotism (or, Who Says Flags Don’t Talk?)

[In June, 1980, less than a year after starting to work for The Houston Post, I was sent out to do a Flag Day story for the next day. I wasn’t given any guidance and I didn’t ask for any. I figure it would be easy to simply approach people and interview them about the flag then put together a story. But by the middle of the afternoon, after having talked to a bunch of folks on the streets and in stores, I had nothing. Just bland clichés about the flag.

I was close to panicking and then I had what I thought was a stupidly brilliant or brilliantly stupid idea: I would do a piece about a fictitious (what other kind is there?) interview with an American flag.

So I hurried back to the newsroom and started working on a piece, without telling my editors what I was doing. When I finished, I turned it in and waited. I knew I was taking a big risk. My editors could say no way and order me to go out and conduct some real interviews, or they could hold their noses and run it and I’d be the laughing stock of the newsroom, and Houston.

I could see the editor talking intently to his assistant city editors, and I saw him walk to the office of the managing editor to talk to him. I had become convinced that there was no way the piece would run After a while, however, the city editor came to my desk and, smiling and shaking his head in a way that said, “I can’t believe I’m doing this,” told me they would run it.

I didn’t get much reaction from my fellow newsroom employees, so I assumed they were less than impressed and were just too nice to say anything about. I got a lot of ribbing from friends; some demanded to know what inanimate object I would next interview.

That was before email so I had to wait a few days for letters to arrive in the mail. There weren’t many, but they were all positive. There were a few letters to the editor praising the article, one said something like, “where have you been hiding Juan Ramón Palomo?”  Anyway, here’s the piece, along with the editor’s note. Happy Flag Day.]

Editor’s note: Post reporter Juan Ramón Palomo received a Flag Day assignment. The interview is fictitious, but the subject is not.

Friday was a typically sultry late-spring day in Houston. With only a light wind blowing, it was hardly the type of day you would choose to expose yourself to the elements.

Yet there it flew. The American Flag — Old Glory — in its red, white and blue vesture, dutifully displaying its message of freedom to the world, as it has done almost daily, in one form or another, for some 200 years.

Against the brutal Texas sun, the battered banner’s diaphanous texture seemed frail and vulnerable to the alien and hostile uncertainties of the world.
At the same time, however, it was proud — valiantly, not defiantly proud.

AS THE SUN BEGAN TO play its daily game of hide-and-seek behind Houston’s skyscrapers, I realized it wouldn’t be too long before its caretaker would come to lower it from its anchor for its nightly rest. I approached its flagpole with caution and great awe.
Since Saturday would be Flag Day, I asked, would it mind submitting to a brief interview to talk about itself?
Perhaps because so few of us seem to ever pay much attention to it anymore, the flag seemed surprised that I would address it, but it answered nonetheless.

It’s not too often I get to talk about myself, it began. Americans have their ideas about me and my functions, and as long as those ideas are not disturbed, they tend to take me for granted.

That’s understandable, however. People have to live their lives, and if they were to spend an inordinate amount of time paying homage to me I would worry about the future of this country and the world.

I HAVE NEVER DEMANDED to be the center of attention. I am honored that one day out of the year is set aside just for me, but I would find even that unnecessary if Americans would strive constantly to fulfill the American dream.

I am, after all, merely a symbol. When people pledge allegiance to me they’re pledging their faithfulness to everything good that America stands for, to freedom, liberty or democracy — whatever you want to call it, it’s all the same thing. It’s a belief that man knows what is best for himself. Nothing more, nothing less.

Of course it bothered me that people not too long ago went around burning me, spitting on me or stitching me to the back pockets of their jeans. Childish actions have always disturbed me.

But it bothered me no more than the actions of others who, while proclaiming patriotism use me for their personal gain, or to satisfy their notion of what the United States is all about.

IT BOTHERS ME THAT I am a convenient excuse for some to criticize and sometimes even deny freedom to those whose views don’t match theirs. The 50 stars on my face represent the states in the union, of course, but in a way, they also stand for the diversity of this country. This is a large nation and there’s room for all points of view.

I don’t buy for one minute the alarmist view that I am no longer respected around the world. These stars and stripes still command deep and widespread admiration across the face of the Earth, and it’s not because we are among those societies with the best weaponry and the most durable economy.

We are held in high regard because, despite our faults – and we have plenty – we have consistently believed in and tried to protect the dignity of man. Other countries have done that, of course, but it was not until we came along that a society took as its major function the protection of its individual members’ liberties.

WE HAVE STRAYED from that over years, and there have been some dark and frightening periods in our history when we have become so concerned for the survival of the nation that we have forgotten about the survival of individual liberties.

Often, in our desire to correct the failures of society, or protect our personal interests, we asked for more government. We’ve reached a point where government becomes a suppressor, an entity with a mind and spirit of its own.
At that, point, people begin clamoring for less government and demand only to be left alone, and that’s understandable.

Just as on different days the ever-changing winds cause me to wave in different directions, so does the mood of the people cause the course of America to change. I find that healthy. We have always survived such changes, and I have faith we always will because our goal will always remain the same.

Perhaps that’s my function: to remind people that no matter how fierce the winds and how unsettled the times, America will survive.
Yes, I’ll be flying extra proud on Flag Day, and I wouldn’t do that if I lacked confidence.

PRESENTLY, THE security guard arrived and slowly began the task of lowering the flag. He folded it carefully and tucked it under his arm as he walked, tired, toward the building. At the top of the stairs he stopped; then turned to look at the lessening traffic. The young man looked towards the flagpole where the cable that just minutes earlier had hoisted the flag now clanged a noisy, steady and mournful beat against the metal pole. He patted the flag gently, as if to assure it that it would indeed be flying again the next day, then entered the building.

 

 

 

 

About juanzqui7

Former Texas reporter, columnist and editorial writer.
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One Response to On Flags and Patriotism (or, Who Says Flags Don’t Talk?)

  1. Jackie Newberry says:

    Beautiful. Thank you, ahead of the times. We need it now more than ever

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