One morning in September, I rolled across the bed in our aft cabin, slid the curtain to the side, and gazed at a sailboat moored on the finger dock we shared. A fog horn blew one lonely tone in the smoky haze. The sailboat was flying a flag. It had flown all night. It was flying in the morning’s rain.
We were moored and waiting for the smoke from fires in California, Oregon, and Washington to pass. The air quality index was reading purple — very unhealthy. Forecasting purple for the next day too.
Smoke dimmed the brightness of the red and white and blue of the sailboat’s flag, its colors faded in the thickened air. I couldn’t see its ends — whether they were as tattered as two flags I’d seen that week flying above the exhaust pipe at the back of pick-up truck. Both of those flags were shredded, and I couldn’t bring myself to take a picture of their red and white fingers frayed and flapping in the wind and weather.
I learned flags as a Girl Scout when I was 10. 1960. They waved by day, were lowered at sunset or spotlighted after dark. On Memorial Day and the 4th of July, I paraded with my troop, my Girl Scout uniform green and freshly-pressed, with short white gloves for my turn to carry or flank the flag. Tired at the end, we worked as a team to fold the flag along its stripes and into a triangle, careful not to let it touch the ground.
Would I go back to that white-gloved time? Is 1960 a time to return to?
No. 1960 held the germs of the war in Vietnam. Our war with Russia was Cold, racing in weapons and space. Four black students at Woolworth’s sat unserved. On TV, Rochester was Jack Benny’s deferential sidekick.
On the other hand, the world held some clarity about what was good and true. Leave it to Beaver, Andy Griffith, To Kill a Mockingbird — they drew clear lines between honorable and not. The Supreme Court ruled segregation on public transit illegal. Eisenhower signed legislation to protect the right to register to vote. Ruby Bridges attended an all-white school in Louisiana. The Peace Corps was birthed in hope. Science rewarded our respect with explorations of the Mariana Trench, kidney transplants, birth control, the first observations of tool use by chimpanzees. Hawaii became a state and rearranged our stars on the flag.
Where are we now in 2020? Waking on a smoky morn to see a flag that flew all night and think of tattered flags flying unattended through night and rain and smoke. What do they speak of the people who fly them? Is it more patriotic to fly a flag around the clock? And more patriotic if you fly two, without troubling to put them up or take them down, to save them from night and weather?
What of the values the flag represents? The intentions of the Constitution — justice and equity, separation of church and state, a common good we share, a society we build together. Things I took for granted when I was 10. Shredded day by day now, online and in the news and in our souls.
It seems, of late, we rise each morning to another day of fog and smoke and lies and waiting for a new day.