Of Bonfires, Flags, and America the Beautiful
December 11, 2003
By Max Black

The 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 us.

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, awaiting retirement.

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