Culture

Untangling My American Flag

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What are people expressing when they display a flag in front of their home but fail to take care of it? Surely nothing as simple as contempt for the nation.

Sometime before he died in 2012, my grandfather gave me an American flag. It was not the truly unusual flag he had once possessed. That one was an enormous star-spangled banner that had belonged to the U.S.S. Alamance and was supposed to be burned when the ship was decommissioned in 1946. My grandfather, the ship’s chief engineer, thought that burning was a senseless fate for the flag, and so he simply stuffed it into a duffel bag and took it home with him. He sometimes displayed it in front of my father’s childhood home, and eventually he donated it to the Naval Museum in Washington.

The flag he gave me is, by contrast, just an ordinary three-by-five flag. Perhaps it was the one that flew in front of the house my grandparents lived in when I was growing up, perhaps not. While I lived in a series of apartments, it kicked around in my miscellaneous storage along with other grandpa memorabilia — a folded white Navy cap, the remnants of coin and stamp collections I had never really taken to, a tackle box. Finally, my family and I moved to a house in 2019 that had a flagpole holder invitingly mounted near the front door. To honor my grandfather, we decided to fly the flag.

Not until the heady first days of COVID, when time slowed down and home improvement was the order of the day, did I get around to ordering a flagpole. I read the reviews of many models, and I could have sworn that I’d picked one designed to allow the flag to rotate all the way around the pole in the wind, and thus spare you the work of constantly untangling it. But I hadn’t; I’d bought a strong, shiny, ordinary pole. Our flag looks very handsome on it in front of our little house, but even moderate gusts wrap it around.

That means that at least a few times a week, and sometimes a few times a day, I have to unwind the flag. It’s not a big deal. I can do the job without any tools, just grabbing the corner and pulling it above the bottom of the pole as many times as necessary. Reach, pull, reach, pull, and all is right again. It’s a satisfying act for me, a minuscule-but-habitual performance of duty to the republic for which the flag stands. I can’t say that it’s never annoying, but all in all I’m glad to have missed out on an anti-wrap-around pole. My untangling routine seems truer to life.

I wouldn’t think much about this habit, let alone write a reflection on it, except that tending to my flag causes me to notice other flags as I never had before. Many are splendid. I especially admire those with free-standing poles or unconventional hangings, like the giant flag my grandfather would hang between tree branches. But I am constantly seeing flags wound tightly around their poles or tangled in ways that scarcely seem possible. Some of them are growing cobwebs. There is one giant, gleaming white house with an immaculately kept lawn, but for months now its flag has been stuck in its gutter.

One need not be metaphor-mad to be struck by the meaning of these objects. Flags are, by their nature, symbols. Wind chimes, garden gnomes, bird-feeders — all these may be purely decorative. But flying a flag expresses a loyalty, whether it is to a country or a movement or a sports team.

What, then, are people expressing when they display a flag in front of their home but fail to take the slightest care of it? Surely nothing as simple as contempt for the nation — someone ashamed of their country would never obtain and mount its flag in the first place. Could these twisted-flag displayers be ambivalent about the U.S., such that they cannot summon the bit of energy needed to take care of the flag it represents, but can’t quite bring themselves to simply throw the flag out, either? Maybe.

Or maybe they are just patriotic but lazy.

Though I hesitate to judge anyone harshly after this trying year we’ve all lived through, it seems to me that collectively, our neglected flags suggest patriotism in America is alive but not well. There is still a widespread sense that we should honor our country’s proud history and traditions, but that sense has become abstract and attenuated. Yes, sure, honoring the country and its glorious, complicated past is good. But when it comes to observing (sometimes admittedly boring) civic rituals and little acts of devotion, we just can’t muster the humility and sincerity and faith needed for the task. In the course of this neglect, our sense of ourselves as a nation gets all tangled up and perhaps begins to grow cobwebs.

Meanwhile, rival banners — Trump flags, Black Lives Matter and “In This House” signs, rainbow flags — proliferate, each signifying a movement with lots of energy behind it.

Five years from now, we’ll arrive at our nation’s 250th birthday. Back in 1976, when my grandfather’s “Greatest” generation was in middle age, the nation orchestrated an impressive series of celebrations to honor its bicentennial. Will we manage the same in 2026, when the veterans of World War II will have almost entirely passed from the scene? You shouldn’t doubt that we have a Semiquincentennial Commission — of course we do. But will we just be going through the motions, or will we really search for ways to connect with and renew our traditions?

I don’t know. But it occurs to me that maybe going through the motions shouldn’t be underestimated — Reach, pull, reach, pull; perhaps what our civic life needs is more of that.

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