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April 6, 2013

Stepping on the flag, and other memories

(Continued)

I realize that last sentence makes me sound like an alien from another world, one who has only the most rudimentary understanding of American culture. And believe me, that’s how I felt at times. I’m not sure how I got to be this way. But I seem to lack some fundamental gene or brain cell — the one that makes you scream at a pep rally or shed a tear over the playing of the national anthem.

In elementary school, we were taught flag etiquette — how to properly raise, display and lower the flag, how to fold it, and how to dispose of it when it had become too worn. Each morning, two of us were sent out to put the state and U.S. flags up on the flagpole in front of the school building.

We were sternly ordered to be respectful of the flags and to ensure that they never touched the ground. But when I asked why, I never really got a satisfactory answer. I was left with the impression that there was some alchemy that would result if the fabric of the flag were to touch the ground. I thought the teacher would know immediately that the magical flag had been sullied, and would sense that it needed to be replaced.

So I did what any kid would go, and conducted a little scientific experiment. When it was my turn to take the flag out, I tossed it onto the grass and let it sit there for a minute before putting it onto the flagpole. Nothing happened. The teacher didn’t notice anything, and the flag continued to go up and come back down every day as it always had.

Of course, as I got older, I understood that there is no magic about the flag, but that the rules governing its display and storage are intended to convey respect. But much as I can understand that on a rational level, there is still that 7-year-old kid inside me who wants to take the flag and throw it on the ground just to see what will happen.

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