There was no equivocation. He had to get to school. Coming from a thrilling VFW ceremony, he was nearly ready to jump out of his skin with anticipation. He held a brand new American flag in his pudgy hands.
His obsession was gripping if not startling. He loved the flag and he loved that he was appointed the student assigned to its care. Not that he had any competition; his responsibility was taken more seriously by him than by any adult in the school. His fascination with the stars and stripes found other odd outlets such as coordinating red-striped tube socks with blue-planed shorts and shirts, drawing flags on his hand in the way that his fellow students wrote the names of paramours, and insisting that his parents allow him to paint his bedroom walls red, white, and blue. His understanding of color, science, and crayons revolved around ways in which he could re-align traditional aesthetic considerations to reflect the sublimity of the color combination. In fact, when drawing rainbows, red, white—in this reality, a color—and blue were the top three bands, while greens, purples, and oranges sat below them. These same pictures often placed stars in the day sky right beside giant smiling yellow suns.
As a twelve year old, his concept of metaphor was yet undeveloped, so the flag did not merely stand for an America that he loved, it was an absolute object of adoration, like his dog, tater tots, and his mother. This is not to say that he didn’t also love America or Ronald Reagan in the same way, but they all had the same intrinsic value. One was not merely a symbol of the other; they all stood in a pantheon of things patriotic, not simply representing, but being. Too, his sense of love was nascent yet, and there was no distinction by the type of care or profundity with which he addressed the objects of his seemingly excessive adoration. Thus, he was bound by the same rules and expressions of intemperate love that he rained upon his dog, tater tots, and his mother.
So, this oddly patriotic child was granted access to a special closet, special because it was created to assuage his need for it, in the back of the school cafeteria, where he could access the box in which it was stored at night. Only he, the principal, and the school custodian had keys. He wore that key round his neck on the same piece of twine that he kept the house key he used to get into his backdoor each day after school, because both of his parents were still at work for several hours after classes let out.
One day, after school, he rode his bike to the city library and checked out R.H. Newcomb’s Our Country and Our Flag, which he read cover to cover. He committed its rules to memory and they became as intrinsic as “Take your shoes off before coming in the house,” and, “Be home before dark.” His favorite song, while his friends enjoyed Stevie Wonder and David Bowie, was the “Star Spangled Banner.” Indeed, when in a public place and the song would be played, on television before a baseball game or on the radio on the fourth of July, he would insist that all around him stand and remove hats. Except for a couple of incidents where alcohol was involved, his parents and all of their friends learned that it was easier to comply than receive a lecture from a twelve-year-old boy on love of country. Of course, his favorite poet was Francis Scott Key and Betsy Ross inhabited the same historical realm of significance as George Washington and Ben Franklin. For the sixth-grade talent show, he performed “You’re a Grand Ol’ Flag,” on the recorder flute. The music teacher, an aging hippy, did not have the patience or stomach to endure the special time allotments required to teach him the much more difficult national anthem.
Not quite understanding the artistic significance or cultural statement that was made by them, he discovered Jasper Johns’s iconic representation and became an unflagging fan.
Every morning, he would choose a friend to assist him in his duty. He would purposefully enter the school while all of his classmates played tetherball, basketball, hopscotch, and freeze tag in the yard. He was permitted special entrance to the nearly empty—save for a few early-arriving teachers—corridors of the campus. He would emerge with the triangularly folded bundle and would lead his assistant to the flagpole on the southwest corner of the school’s front lawn. Neatly and reverently, they would unfold it, he sometimes adding commentary and other times seeking affirmations of how “cool” this was. He always took the role of clipping the flag to the halyard while his friend held the fly end outstretched and horizontal. He always loved the last moment when the rising flag left his assistant’s fingertips to catch the wind as he seriously raised the flag, hand over hand over hand, on the rope. As he wrapped the rope around the cleat, he looked to his companion with an expectant gaze, waiting to see if he knew to cover his chest. With the same assumptions that Catholics make about their Protestant guests’ knowledge of when to kneel and genuflect during Mass, he would immediately launch into the Pledge of Allegiance. With only minimal hesitation, his guest would join him. He beamed. This never became old for him. He, after all, got to say the pledge twice each morning; he was granting his helper the same gift.
Afternoons were equally special. Leaving class five minutes before everyone else—considering his day started before everybody’s too—was but a byproduct of the heavy responsibility that weighed upon his young and spritely spirit. While the pool of students who wished to assist in the morning hoisting of the stars and stripes was often shallow, there was almost universal hand-raising when the teacher asked who wanted to help at day’s end.
This stern and solemn task was not always approached with the requisite degree of respect that he demanded—especially relative to the morning volunteers. Nonetheless, he used it as an opportunity to indoctrinate classmates in the finer points of flag folding and general knowledge about the flag. He would discuss, for instance, how before Hawaii and Alaska became states, the stars lined up in perfect rows and columns instead of how they are staggered presently. He would talk about the thirteen stripes and the thirteen colonies. He was also insistent upon absolute earnestness and care, explaining that if the flag touched the ground they would have to burn it and bury it in a special ceremony. He especially liked to shock the girls when explaining that the red stripes meant blood. Again, at an age where metaphor is just out of reach, the more squeamish girls would cast the flag from their hands forcing him to scramble and contort his own grip to prevent the blessed flag from touching the ground. Eventually he learned to have the girls grasp the flag on the white stripes before telling them about the blood.
He always got his volunteer to help him fold the flag perfectly, insisting that if the proper planes were not showing at the end that they would have to start over. When complete with this task, his flag friend was dismissed early to get on the school bus, walk to a parent’s car, or retrieve a bicycle. This reward usually provided a thirty-second head start over the rest of the school. This prize may well have been an hour of horseplay, for it was coveted among all his peers.
Occasionally, his assistant would walk with him to the closet for the placement of the flag in its nightly resting spot. This was always a moment of pride, as he dug into his shirt collar to retrieve the key which set close to heart all day. He never failed to explain that only he, their principal, and the custodian had such a key.
National holidays and notable deaths broke up what might have otherwise been monotony as they called for the half-masting of the flag. He argued with his teacher on the day President Reagan was shot, insisting that he must immediately lower the flag. His teacher finally reassured and contented him that “if he dies tonight, you may put it at half-staff tomorrow.” It turned out that all flags were ordered at half-mast the next day by the governor, thereby quieting all controversy on the matter. He felt vindicated and often reminded his teacher of his vast knowledge and intuition regarding all things flag. Slightly more mature, the teacher acquiesced and allowed him to maintain his expert status, the point of deferral on all such future matters. He was usually right.
When a storm threatened, he watched the window with a stern anticipation. Perhaps he had over interpreted the rules about rain. If he was sure that a sun shower would pass, he would not fret. He would, however, not stand for his beloved flag enduring a thunderstorm. Thus, he became almost as adept in meteorology as in flag esoterics. Not aware that his insistence that the flag come down during storms implied a distrust of its strength and resilience, he coddled it like a grandmother, more concerned with the “old” than the “glory.”
Invoking the spirit of revolutionary minutemen protecting it from gunshot and cannon fire, he more than once braved thunder and lightning in order to honor its preservation. On one occasion particularly, when nearby lightning bolts had hit a transformer and knocked out power to the school, he rose from the dark with a proclamation. As tornado sirens could be heard in the background and his teacher scrambled to make order out of the chaos in her classroom, he stood and felt his way toward the door. She cross-checked him as she ordered him under his desk. He refused.
Words were calmly exchanged between the two that ultimately ended in a piercing scream from the boy: “I don’t care if you don’t love our country, but I will not,” he pounded his feet on the wooden floor with the weight of a militia as he shouted the words “will not.” “I will not,” he repeated for emphasis, “stand by and watch our flag desecrated just because you’re afraid!” He continued, “Do you think the Russians would leave their flag out in this storm?” His pitch reached fever, about to burst into tears at any moment. Another word would have been inaudible.
She stepped aside, deciding that the safety of the thirty other speechless and horrified students in her class was more important at this moment. Later discussions with the principal about the incident spanned from suspension for insubordinate behavior to nominating him for a medal and commendation from the President. He took off his horn-rimmed glasses and handed them to her. She obligingly took them, stunned. The sounds of rain on the roof, booms of thunder that came every three seconds, and the far-off sound of tornado sirens, were accompanied by the blazing scurry of his feet down the hallway and toward the front door.
The teacher watched through the window in silent disbelief as the roundish four-foot-eight boy braved the storm. He was soaking wet with his first step out from under the sidewalk awning. The wind and rain were so heavy that she could not see him after he had passed more than ten yards from the door. She continued to watch—the event lit only by lightning bolts—when the flag rapidly descended the pole in fits and starts every two feet until it vanished for a second. Then she could see it floating in what must have been his hands. The sirens stopped in the background and the torrents abated for a moment so she could see him rather clearly with the flag in his hands as he climbed the building’s front steps. Another clap of thunder coincided with his slamming of the front doors. He had disappeared out of her view. One of the students dared ask into the darkness from beneath his desk, “Is he okay?”
“He’s okay. He got it. Now stay still.”
His steps pounded down the hall with a chilling Poe-ness that stood in stark contrast to the frenzy with which they left. The class remained motionless, listening. His teacher said not another word, and remained still and calm in an exemplary effort to encourage her students to do so. The lights came back on, but the teacher insisted that everybody in the class, “Stay just where” they were, and all complied. As he got closer, everybody could tell that he was crying after all and that his steps were infused with grave solemnity rather than pride. Finally, a phantasm appeared at the threshold. He was not crying hard, but rather whimpering. He was dripping wet, as if the rain had fallen so hard upon him that it had filled him up and that it was now flowing back out of him like a pricked water balloon. His thin straight hair hung down over his eyes and his clothes clung to him making his absurdly shaped pre-pubescent body all the more absurd. In his arms he held the flag. It, too, was dripping. He stood in a puddle that threatened to become a lake that threatened to overtake its banks.
“Alright, everybody.” The rain continued in torrents, but the thunder, lightning and sirens had moved past. “You may, with no talking, come out from under your desks. I want everybody to sit, silently, and put your heads down until I tell you to get up.” Again, the class followed directions and the sound of scooting desks and chairs, some rustling papers, and hushed whispers combined with the sound of rain falling on the roof.
The teacher, knowing that her next action would set the tone for the rest of the year and would probably have a profound effect on more than one of these children, walked slowly over to the drenched boy and grabbed two corners of the flag. Paralyzed, he began to cry more loudly as a few heads peeked up around the class. “Heads down!”
“It touched the ground,” he said as his heart sank and his red eyes burst forth a round of tears that made the storm outside seem a misting. “I let it touch the ground. I am so sorry!” He wished for the earth to swallow him, for invisibility, for anything other than the pain in his heart at that moment. He still had all of his grandparents, aunts and uncles. His puppy was in good health and his parents had never done anything but shower him with affection. He never wanted for anything and his mother supplied tater tots from a seemingly bottomless fry-daddy well.
In his short life, this was his first moment of despair. It was, indeed, the first time his soul had truly hurt. Perhaps, he would find out shortly thereafter, this was the moment that made metaphor a graspable concept for him. Perhaps, he might later understand that, with the destruction of this flag, he was truly born again.
“I’m sorry.” Gripping the soaked mound of red, white, and blue close to his chest, he allowed himself to be embraced by his now sobbing teacher.
“It’s okay, honey.”
“I’m just so sorry. So sorry”
“Shh.” She touched her index finger to his lips. She took off her cardigan and wrapped him in it. She brushed his hair out of his eyes with her other finger. She squatted down and carefully slid his glasses onto his face. She smiled at him as she shook her head with an attitude that only a sixth-grade teacher can affect.
Together they walked into the hall as she cautioned the remaining thirty once again, “Keep your heads down.”