The Fourth on the Fence

America’s Independence Day celebrations go full-on patriotic today, including a plethora of centuries-old traditions. Barbecues and fireworks. Downtown parades with marching bands. Baseball, apple pie, and ice cream. Flags, and countless costumes of red, white, and blue. Another round of Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. These are the images consistent with America’s 243rd birthday party. But tennis shoes and tanks? Nope; not what I had in mind.

Photo by Nike

I’m referring to recent headlines, of course.  Nike – in an obvious nod to Independence Day – produced a limited-edition running shoe with the “Betsy Ross” on the heels (the version of the American Flag with a circle of thirteen stars on the field of blue).  The shoe would’ve made it to hundreds of feet were it not for concerns voiced by activist (and Nike spokesperson) Colin Kaepernick.  In response, Nike immediately recalled the shoe.  In response to that, the state of Arizona withdrew financial incentives for the construction of Nike’s latest manufacturing plant.  In response to that, the state of New Mexico created a political fence at the NM/AZ border, inviting Nike to “come on over”.  “Betsy Ross” instantly became a hot topic on Twitter.

Photo by Andrew Harnik – AP

As for the tanks, President Trump requested “reinforcements” for the “Salute to America” parade and flyover in Washington D.C.  In a nod to the U.S. Armed Forces, parade-goers will enjoy a convoy of loud-and-proud servicemen and women and their vehicles.  I can’t think of anything more patriotic: a fortified Independence Day parade in our nation’s capital hosted by the leader of the free world.  But like the Betsy Ross shoes, we have controversy.  D.C. locals are worried about tank-track damage to city streets and bridges.  More predictably, the progressive left sees President Trump’s actions (and Salute speech) as an inappropriate opportunity for political gain.  In response to that, there will be protestors and flag-burners galore.

My Independence Day childhood memories have nothing to do with flag-burning, let alone tennis shoes and tanks.  Our family would trek to the beach in Southern California full of pride and patriotism.  We’d spread blankets on the sand at dusk alongside thousands of others, with a couple of buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken for dinner.  My brothers and I would run around in circles with sparklers.  When it got dark enough we’d enjoy the fireworks erupting from a nearby pier.

As a teenage boy – and budding pyrotechnic – Independence Day was all about the fireworks.  My dad would purchase a large “Red Devil” assortment and we’d set them off on the beach.  My favorites included “black snakes”, “ground-spinners”, and “fountains”. (Alas, I never experienced the machine-gunner thrill of hoisting a Roman Candle.)

When my own children were young, I delighted in our local (and thoroughly hokey) Independence Day parade.  Our supermarket participated with a group of dancing, shopping-cart-wielding cashiers.  Our dentist shamelessly advertised on a float with a giant toothbrush. But our son carried the flag as a Boy Scout and our daughter rode her pony as part of an equestrian team.  Later in the evening we’d gather at the shore of the nearby lake to watch the fireworks display, fully funded by donations to the local fire department.  Small-town America at its best.

Like any other living, breathing American, I have my opinions on the tennis shoes and tanks.  I don’t think Nike intended to dredge up Revolutionary War-era civil liberties simply by displaying the Betsy Ross on its products.  I don’t think President Trump did anything more than exercise the privilege of the office by serving as host of our nation’s capital’s celebration.  In both cases, I think digging for dirt below the surface only makes things dirtier.  I’d wear the shoes or attend the Washington D.C. bash without an iota of self-consciousness.  I’d simply be an American celebrating our Independence Day.

Nike defended its shoe recall by claiming it’s “proud of its American heritage”, but worried the Betsy Ross would “unintentionally offend and detract from the nation’s patriotic holiday”.  President Trump’s advocates said he’s “… not afraid to buck convention and put his own twist on these types of events”.  How about we get off the fence, take a step back, and remember what we’re celebrating?  America’s birthday deserves more than focus on yesterday’s regrettable events or today’s relentless politics.  Perhaps – just for a day – we could be the “United States” of America once again.

American Hollow-Day

Last Friday was a hugely important day in America! It was so hugely important I couldn’t sleep the night before! I got up twice hoping it was already morning. I stared at the numbers on the bedside clock, willing them to go faster. Finally, when dawn’s early light beckoned, I leaped out of bed like a child on Christmas, dashed down the hall, and stepped into the laundry room. I was brimming with anticipation!  And there, standing patiently in the corner, tightly furled since last Independence Day: our American flag.  Quick as a mouse, I ran her out to the front deck and hoisted her in the most prominent place I could find. Then I took a few steps back and placed my hand over my heart.  To no one in particular I exclaimed, “Happy Flag Day!”

Poor Flag Day – she’s an underappreciated holiday.  She comes and goes with no more fanfare than pre-printed words on the June 14 square of a wall calendar.  She doesn’t even rate a Hallmark card.  She yearns to be a real holiday like those ten federal ones.   She wants to believe the events of my first paragraph actually happened.  But let’s get real.  In our house, the only excitement last Friday was knowing the weekend was at hand.  I slept without interruption the night before.  I didn’t get up at dawn.  And our flag remained furled in the corner of the laundry room, knowing its only chance to see the light of day would be July 4th.

Which is all to say, I’m missing the point of Flag Day, at least in this country.  Wikipedia devotes two tiny paragraphs to its Flag Day article, beginning with the words, “A flag day is a flag-related holiday…” (promising start, no?)  But at least they go on to say, “…a day designated for flying a certain flag…”, and, “…a day set aside to celebrate a nation’s adoption of its flag.”  Here in America, we do neither on June 14th.

Apologies to Troy, NY (whose Flag Day parades draws 50,000+ spectators) and Waubeka, WI (which claims to be the founding city of Flag Day and also has a parade).  The residents of those towns surely had a “banner celebration” last Friday.  The employees of the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia probably took the day off as well.  But for the rest of us, it was just another June 14th, conspicuously calendared halfway between big-boy holidays “Memorial” and “Independence”.

Don’t get me wrong – I think America’s flag is supremely appreciated.  She flies above any government facility, sports stadium, or other big-time gathering in our country, and she always gets the highest position on the pole (except you, Texas).  She shows up on a billion first-class postage stamps.  She’s decorates the top of Mt. Everest and the moon.  And on Independence Day, she’ll be raised more times than any other day.  Which makes Flag Day seem, well, redundant, doesn’t it?

         

If we’re to truly embrace this overlooked holiday in America, I suggest the following from now on: 1) Your June 14th breakfast must contain some combination of red, white, and blue foods (i.e. cherries, blueberries, Pop-Tarts in a pinch).  2) Your June 14th outfit must contain the colors of the American flag (or at least one of those classy little lapel pins).  3) Unfurl and raise the flag at your house or place of business – and won’t it be cool to add “unfurl” to your vocabulary for a day?  4) Hail a cab or a friend, so you can say you “flagged them down”.  Actually, disregard that last one.

I’ll grant one exception to my efforts to boost the significance of Flag Day.  If you happen to live on a flag lot, you don’t have to do anything at all.  You’re celebrating by default!  But you might consider coloring your property appropriately.  Wouldn’t that cause a stir in the plane flying overhead?

Look forward, not back.  Independence Day is only two weeks from today.  Dust off your flag after all.

Banner Birthday

I unfurled my American flag off the back deck of our house yesterday. It’s a prominent location for the Stars & Stripes, where people passing by on the adjacent street can’t miss it. Then again, we live in a quiet neighborhood so I’d be surprised if many took notice. I’d be even more surprised if they knew why I was flying the flag.  Perhaps you missed it too.  Yesterday was Flag Day.

To be brutally honest, I’m not sure why America has a Flag Day.  Oh sure, the history books tell us Flag Day commemorates the adoption of the U.S. flag, way back on June 14, 1777.  One could argue there’s no amount of honor and celebration large enough for our country’s heritage and freedom.  But Independence Day gets a whole lot more attention than Flag Day.  Ditto Memorial Day and Veterans Day.  At least those days are true “holidays” in the United States.

Flag Day was established in 1916, so what-do-ya-know that makes this year’s celebration the 100th anniversary.  I didn’t see any parades or fireworks to commemorate the centennial, did you?  Then again, I don’t think America fully embraces Flag Day.  If we adopted our flag in 1777, why did we need another 140 years to give it a “day”?  Flag Day isn’t even an official holiday in this country.  The President has the discretion to decide if it should be celebrated in a given year.  On that note, I don’t recall a proclamation from President Trump so maybe I should’ve kept my flag in the closet.

There’s further confusion about Flag Day.  Congress didn’t put the commemoration into “law” until 1949, thirty-three years after Woodrow Wilson established the day.  No states acknowledged Flag Day before 1937, when Pennsylvania became the first.  Other states – notably New York – decided it made better sense to put Flag Day on a weekend, as in the second weekend in June.  We can’t even agree on the date.

There’s history about Flag Day that precedes President Wilson, but it’s spotty.  The earliest reference is 1861, when a citizen of Hartford, CT suggested the idea and the city put together a celebration.  That didn’t take.  I885, Bernard Cigrand of Waubeka, WI began a prolonged push for a U.S. Flag Day.  After one local observance, he traveled around the country “promoting patriotism, respect for the flag, and the need for the annual observance”.  Thanks to Cigrand, Wilson established Flag Day thirty years later.  Cigrand is thus earned the title, “Father of Flag Day”.

Despite the facts, Flag Day still has me scratching my head.  The “National Flag Day Foundation” celebrates – like New York – on the second Sunday in June, yet the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House in Baltimore and the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia prefer June 14th (lending credence to “National Flag Week”).  Parades and festivities take place around the country, but the discretion seems to be with the states as much as the President.  Here in Colorado Springs, home of the Air Force Academy and several other military bases, Flag Day came and went without so much as a whisper.

Fifty other countries have a Flag Day so there is some legitimacy to the concept.  But in many cases, those countries celebrate their independence as well.  That makes a lot more sense to me.  The flag is a connotation for liberty, so why not go with one holiday instead of two?

I admire the homes with the permanent flagpoles in the front yard, their owners pridefully raising the Stars & Stripes day in and day out.  But Flag Day must be “just another day” to these people.  Fittingly, americanflags.com describes Flag Day as “consistently overlooked yet universally beloved”.  I’d agree with the first part of that statement.

With all due respect, I’ll continue to unfurl the Stars & Stripes on Flag Day, no matter how many people notice.  If for no other reason, to echo the words of one of our most revered presidents:

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

 

The Aging of Independence

Ten years from now – this month – the U.S. will celebrate its 250th birthday. That’s remarkable to me considering I still have vivid memories of America’s bicentennial back in 1976.  To put it another way, I’ve been witness to more than 20% of the entire history of the United States.  We really are a young country, aren’t we?

54 - sesquicentennial

Earlier this week my wife and I were driving back to Colorado from California, after a week of vacation at the beach. Passing through Utah we reached a small town called Cedar City. There’s nothing remarkable about Cedar City. It’s the home of Southern Utah University and almost 30,000 residents. But the name stirred a memory in the deep recesses of my brain. And then it hit me. Cedar City was part of a contest the Los Angeles Times newspaper sponsored when I was a teenager – a creative way of celebrating the nation’s big birthday.

The contest (if my vague memories serve me correctly) took place over fifty of the fifty-two weeks that year. Each week The Times published a trivia puzzle consisting of a jumbled American city name and a couple other facts you had to figure out about the locale or surrounding state. As the contest went on you realized The Times was picking one city from every state in the union. You cut out and completed each puzzle by hand, and at the end of the contest submitted the whole pile to The Times, to be included in a cash drawing. Our family’s World Book Encyclopedia – not the Internet that was still twenty years from reality – helped me with the research.

I didn’t win The Times contest but I know I learned a lot about our country in the process – including a few details about little Cedar City, Utah.  Needless to say we are a remarkably diverse collection of states, towns and people; especially for a country so young.

America’s 150th birthday – the “sesquicentennial” – was honored back in 1926 when Calvin Coolidge was president.  You can find Coolidge’s celebratory address to the people here.  One passage in particular resonated with me: “Amid all the clash of conflicting interests, amid all the welter of partisan politics, every American can turn for solace and consolation to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States with the assurance and confidence that those two great charters of freedom and justice remain firm and unshaken.”  Powerful words then, but I wonder if today’s leaders would be so bold as to make the same statement?  Look no further than the current presidential election: the Constitution and the Declaration are being called into question like never before.

Ten years from now the U.S. will celebrate its “sestercentennial” – fully 250 years of glorious independence.  Philadelphia is already campaigning to be the host city for the national celebration.  2026 won’t be a presidential election year nor an Olympic year, but the fireworks and pageantry will surely be brighter.  Let’s hope another decade brings not only renewed pride and optimism in America, but also a sense that we are – states, towns, citizens – “united” once more.