The Flag of My Father

In going through my father's things following his death a dozen years ago, I came across the flag he had hung over our house on holidays and other special occasions, properly folded now as a tri-corner and occupying part of a shelf in his front hall closet.  I asked my two siblings if they would mind if I took it, and getting no objection, I packed it up with a few other items and sent it back to my home in Colorado.  Once there, it was stashed on another shelf in another closet, where I promptly forgot about it until we moved back to Connecticut – after an absence of forty years – and discovered it again while unpacking.

This time I was not so dismissive or forgetful about it.  It had, after all, made a nearly 60-year journey across the country and back again to accompany the return of a wayward, if not prodigal, son.  I began to recall the memories that this flag embraced.  It now held meaning to me that until now I had been unable to put into words.

Like most Americans of his age, my father revered the flag.  No chest-thumping patriot or jingoist, he hadn't even served in the military, being a year too young for service in World War II and already married with children when war in Korea broke out.  Rather, flying the flag without shame or embarrassment on special occasions is what normal Americans did then, unlike today, when the presence of a flag is often taken as a tip-off to gun ownership or conservative political views.  Even after all these years, I don't know what my father's political views were – I'm guessing he voted both Democrat and Republican, maybe even at the same time.  He felt it was not his business to indoctrinate his children.

But when he wanted a flag, he wanted a good one.  After Alaska joined the union in 1959, he replaced his rare 49-star flag with the current iteration, every star and stripe stitched on seemingly indestructible fabric, and not one of those cheesy printed flags.  It would not fly on a pole, but hang vertically above the front porch of our Connecticut home so that it brushed your head and anointed you with an odd sense of protection as you entered the house.  One of the first things we learned as children was flag etiquette – not just that it shouldn't be dipped to a person or thing, or touch the ground, or be used as part of an article of clothing or athletic uniform – but how to properly fold it and store it.  Each child at one point had a turn at folding the flag with my father in the traditional tri-corner, he at one end and one of us at the other, carefully folding it twice so that the field of stars was exposed at one end and then having him finish it off in a succession of triangular folds toward the field.  Alas, much of what we knew as flag etiquette has gone by the wayside, even this time-honored way of retiring it.

The appearance of the flag on our porch marked the annual procession of national holidays, occasions that marked the steady march of our growth as children, but also those unexpected, tragic occasions when the flag was flown in mourning.  Following the assassination of JFK, my father, once again observing flag etiquette, attached a black streamer to the left of the field of stars – what you do when you can't fly a flag at half-mast.  By sheer coincidence, that Thanksgiving, we were scheduled to entertain a Russian couple who worked as translators at the United Nations.  After a moment of doubt, given the solemn events of that week, my parents decided to go through with it, and we spent a delightful day playing with the Russian couple's daughter in our front yard.  I can only imagine what the Russian couple thought of this scene being played out in the presence of a proud flag and its mournful, oversized black ribbon.

Sadly, both flag and mourning streamer appeared twice more five years later, upon the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy.  After those events I was soon gone from home, and the flag, and my parents, made their way to another part of the country.

My father's flag flew above the porch of my new home in Connecticut for three years.  Knowing that 60 years is a long time for many material things to last, I didn't just haul it out for national holidays, but flew it from Memorial Day to Labor Day each year, when I would retire it at sunset on that first Monday in September.  Gradually, the years took their toll, and earlier this summer, the blue field started fading rapidly, so that it looked much like the nearly translucent flag in the first few frames of Saving Private Ryan.  With a sense of dread but deep appreciation, I knew what I had to do next, but I didn't want to tell anyone, least of all my 87-year-old mother, who had watched her children grow up with that flag.

There are some things you can do only alone, because there are some things that can be understood by only one person, so I waited for my wife to travel out of town to visit her parents to retire the flag for the last time.  It was a bright Saturday, I had time on my hands, and there were no more excuses to put off the inevitable.  In a ceremony witnessed only by my curious dog, I carefully folded the flag into a tri-corner, tucked it under my arm, and headed out the door.

The Gold Star Bridge over the Thames River in Connecticut takes you from one America to another, from the Brigadoon-like villages of the Connecticut River Valley to the so-called "deplorables" of Groton, the blue-collar workers who build and maintain our submarine fleet and the thousands of sailors who make them work.  Next to the sub base, I knew there was a seamstress who could dispose of the flag in the proper manner after carefully removing the stars to send to our servicemen and women overseas.  It was not with sadness, but with a sense of satisfaction that I gave up the flag in this manner, a wordless exchange with the seamstress that spoke volumes.  I like to think my father would have been pleased with how it all ended for his flag.

Back on the Gold Star Bridge, heading home, I had no regrets, but felt as though it was the last act of a son in memory of his father.  It was a solemn moment, to be sure, and also one of profound gratitude for having been born into this family, in this country, and in this moment in our history.  

Rick Rinehart is a writer and publisher living in Connecticut.  He can be reached at threecedars534@gmail.com.

In going through my father's things following his death a dozen years ago, I came across the flag he had hung over our house on holidays and other special occasions, properly folded now as a tri-corner and occupying part of a shelf in his front hall closet.  I asked my two siblings if they would mind if I took it, and getting no objection, I packed it up with a few other items and sent it back to my home in Colorado.  Once there, it was stashed on another shelf in another closet, where I promptly forgot about it until we moved back to Connecticut – after an absence of forty years – and discovered it again while unpacking.

This time I was not so dismissive or forgetful about it.  It had, after all, made a nearly 60-year journey across the country and back again to accompany the return of a wayward, if not prodigal, son.  I began to recall the memories that this flag embraced.  It now held meaning to me that until now I had been unable to put into words.

Like most Americans of his age, my father revered the flag.  No chest-thumping patriot or jingoist, he hadn't even served in the military, being a year too young for service in World War II and already married with children when war in Korea broke out.  Rather, flying the flag without shame or embarrassment on special occasions is what normal Americans did then, unlike today, when the presence of a flag is often taken as a tip-off to gun ownership or conservative political views.  Even after all these years, I don't know what my father's political views were – I'm guessing he voted both Democrat and Republican, maybe even at the same time.  He felt it was not his business to indoctrinate his children.

But when he wanted a flag, he wanted a good one.  After Alaska joined the union in 1959, he replaced his rare 49-star flag with the current iteration, every star and stripe stitched on seemingly indestructible fabric, and not one of those cheesy printed flags.  It would not fly on a pole, but hang vertically above the front porch of our Connecticut home so that it brushed your head and anointed you with an odd sense of protection as you entered the house.  One of the first things we learned as children was flag etiquette – not just that it shouldn't be dipped to a person or thing, or touch the ground, or be used as part of an article of clothing or athletic uniform – but how to properly fold it and store it.  Each child at one point had a turn at folding the flag with my father in the traditional tri-corner, he at one end and one of us at the other, carefully folding it twice so that the field of stars was exposed at one end and then having him finish it off in a succession of triangular folds toward the field.  Alas, much of what we knew as flag etiquette has gone by the wayside, even this time-honored way of retiring it.

The appearance of the flag on our porch marked the annual procession of national holidays, occasions that marked the steady march of our growth as children, but also those unexpected, tragic occasions when the flag was flown in mourning.  Following the assassination of JFK, my father, once again observing flag etiquette, attached a black streamer to the left of the field of stars – what you do when you can't fly a flag at half-mast.  By sheer coincidence, that Thanksgiving, we were scheduled to entertain a Russian couple who worked as translators at the United Nations.  After a moment of doubt, given the solemn events of that week, my parents decided to go through with it, and we spent a delightful day playing with the Russian couple's daughter in our front yard.  I can only imagine what the Russian couple thought of this scene being played out in the presence of a proud flag and its mournful, oversized black ribbon.

Sadly, both flag and mourning streamer appeared twice more five years later, upon the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy.  After those events I was soon gone from home, and the flag, and my parents, made their way to another part of the country.

My father's flag flew above the porch of my new home in Connecticut for three years.  Knowing that 60 years is a long time for many material things to last, I didn't just haul it out for national holidays, but flew it from Memorial Day to Labor Day each year, when I would retire it at sunset on that first Monday in September.  Gradually, the years took their toll, and earlier this summer, the blue field started fading rapidly, so that it looked much like the nearly translucent flag in the first few frames of Saving Private Ryan.  With a sense of dread but deep appreciation, I knew what I had to do next, but I didn't want to tell anyone, least of all my 87-year-old mother, who had watched her children grow up with that flag.

There are some things you can do only alone, because there are some things that can be understood by only one person, so I waited for my wife to travel out of town to visit her parents to retire the flag for the last time.  It was a bright Saturday, I had time on my hands, and there were no more excuses to put off the inevitable.  In a ceremony witnessed only by my curious dog, I carefully folded the flag into a tri-corner, tucked it under my arm, and headed out the door.

The Gold Star Bridge over the Thames River in Connecticut takes you from one America to another, from the Brigadoon-like villages of the Connecticut River Valley to the so-called "deplorables" of Groton, the blue-collar workers who build and maintain our submarine fleet and the thousands of sailors who make them work.  Next to the sub base, I knew there was a seamstress who could dispose of the flag in the proper manner after carefully removing the stars to send to our servicemen and women overseas.  It was not with sadness, but with a sense of satisfaction that I gave up the flag in this manner, a wordless exchange with the seamstress that spoke volumes.  I like to think my father would have been pleased with how it all ended for his flag.

Back on the Gold Star Bridge, heading home, I had no regrets, but felt as though it was the last act of a son in memory of his father.  It was a solemn moment, to be sure, and also one of profound gratitude for having been born into this family, in this country, and in this moment in our history.  

Rick Rinehart is a writer and publisher living in Connecticut.  He can be reached at threecedars534@gmail.com.