I’m sincerely trying, but I just can’t get my head wrapped around our new state flag. It seems jumped up, contrived – put together by a committee of overwrought west coast art students who know more about Matisse than Mississippi history. The people have spoken, and I have nothing against magnolias; but I thought the whole idea of this revisionist history exercise was to get away from banjos, hoop skirts, and mint juleps. I’m not sure the magnolia blossom falls far enough away from that tree. At worst, it’s just an innocuous “placebo,” the Latin for “I shall be pleasing.”
Personally, I preferred the so-called “Great River Flag,” featuring a shield design based on the 1798 seal of the Mississippi Territory. It had relevance and gravitas. We were only permitted to see a few of the 3,000 or so designs submitted to the Flag Selection Committee, but I’ve heard persistent rumors that the mosquito, boll weevil, and catfish would have been serious contenders had they been allowed to see the light of day. I would have also given the catalpa worm and the Black Mouth Cur strong consideration. For all I know, the flag committee is the descendant of the committee that, many years ago, promoted planting magnolias along all the major highways entering Mississippi – a canopy of magnolias, so to speak. Well, you can see how that turned out: a few mottled, whiplashed survivors huddled on the side of the road, gasping for oxygen amid the exhaust fumes.
Don’t get me wrong, I had just retired from the Navy in 2001 when Mississippi voted 2 to 1 to keep the 1894 flag, and I remember telling my Sumrall High School history class before the election that “any flag that has a symbol that hurts and alienates 1/3 of the population, people who pay their taxes and die for their country, should be changed.” I just don’t like some vague “committee” telling me what my choices are, and that the magnolia is the flag for me. After working for the government so long, I guess I’m just biased against committees. I put them in the same category as government “experts” – you know, what Ronald Reagan said were the scariest words in the world: “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you.”
Change to a flag’s design is not necessarily a bad thing. For example, whether you think of it as Old Glory, the Red, White, and Blue, the Stars and Stripes, or the Star-Spangled Banner, our national flag has gone through 27 iterations since Betsy Ross did or did not stitch the first one together in 1776. Each new version represented the addition of one or more states as the United States grew westward to fulfill what historians have referred to as its “manifest destiny.” While we have had the current 50-star flag since 1960, with the addition of Hawaii, Mississippi contributed its star to the third, twenty-star design of 1818 when it became a state in 1817 along with stars added for four states previously admitted to the Union: Tennessee (1796), Ohio (1803), Louisiana (1812), and Indiana (1816). While both stars and stripes were initially added to the new flags, this grew unwieldy, and the design soon reverted to the original thirteen stripes.
When the English writer, Rudyard Kipling, the unofficial poet laureate of the 19th century British Empire, wrote the following words in his poem, “The English Flag,” about the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, “I have spread its fold o’er the dying, adrift in a hopeless sea; I have hurled it swift on the slaver, and seen the slave set free,” he struck a resonate chord with me. A flag is a powerful symbol; for example, the American flag is probably the most recognized symbol in the world, except maybe for Coca-Cola. The only other distinctly “American” symbol that I can think of that anywhere approaches its significance is the majestic bald eagle. I’m not sure how serious he was, but one of our founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, supposedly put forward the turkey, rather than the bald eagle, as our national bird, which would have given the formality of our institutions all the dignity of a Peter Sellers movie.
Although I followed three different career paths during my years in the Navy, I think I would have been just as happy being a simple signalman whose everyday business involves working with flags and pennants at sea. One of the oldest ratings in the Navy, along with boatswain’s mate, a signalman is often exposed to inclement weather on the signal bridge. He is always topside; he can see what’s going on and is privy to the “big picture,” and all those flags in the ship’s flag bag are fascinating in themselves. Consequently, I managed to spend a lot of my free time on the signal bridge during my years at sea, even though that wasn’t my primary duty station, often working on my suntan during a “nooner.” In addition to being “scuttlebutt central,” a place where all the ship’s gossip ends up, I also picked up a good bit of knowledge about “vexillology,” or the scholarly study of flags and of flag etiquette. On the other hand, I remember being told solemnly and authoritatively such nuggets of wisdom as “It’s always the 7th wave that goes farthest up the beach,” the four guided missile destroyers we sold to the Shah of Iran back in the 1970s had gold fixtures in the officer’s heads (bathrooms), and the cooks routinely add saltpeter to our food.
Some cynics might say that, in this modern electronic age, signal flags are redundant and only a relic of the past. They are wrong. Signal flags displayed on a ship’s yardarm serve three valuable purposes: they indicate a ship’s current operational status; they show a ship’s maneuvering intentions; and they provide ship-to-ship communications utilizing an international code book. In addition to flags representing the letters of the alphabet and numbers zero through nine, a typical Navy ship’s flag bag will carry several specialty flags and pennants, such as substitutes, repeaters, day shapes and, every sailor’s favorite, the going home pennant, which is only flown when a ship returns to homeport from a long deployment overseas.
Using the resources in the flag bag, a signalman can string together just about any message imaginable. For example, among old timers in the Navy, a perhaps apocryphal story is told of how, during World War II task force operations in the Mediterranean, one destroyer began steaming off in the wrong direction. The task force commander ordered his signalman to hoist three pennants or flags on the yardarm in an arrangement strikingly different from any signal ever flown before. The pennants hoisted were “interrogative,” the church pennant, and “station.” What the admiral signaled to the wayward ship was intended to read: “Where in God’s name are you going?”
Whether this story is true or not, it has long been a U.S. Navy tradition that the triangular Christian church pennant be flown from the topmost mast whenever a Protestant worship service was held or a Roman Catholic mass celebrated. Incidentally, only the church pennant is authorized to be flown above the United States ensign, but this is only when church services are actually being held. In 1976, a Jewish Worship pennant was authorized to be flown during Jewish services aboard ship, and I was privileged to be the action officer who shepherded the project to success through the Department of the Navy.
Another interesting feature of the flag bag is the Union Jack, which is flown on the jack staff on the bow of American warships that are moored or anchored during daylight hours. Since Sept. 11, 2002, the Jack has been the Revolutionary War version, which is a flag bearing 13 red and white stripes, a rattlesnake, and the motto, “Don’t Tread on Me.” The only time you will see the entire contents of the flag bag displayed is during a holiday Dress Ship exercise, usually in a foreign port. Merchantmen will carry some additional flags and the Blue Peter, which denotes that the ship is about to sail, and that all ship’s company should return aboard immediately.
Flags have played a dominant role in our nation’s history. The USS Ranger, under the command of John Paul Jones, was the first ship to receive an official nine-gun salute of the American Stars and Stripes at sea from a foreign (French) warship in 1778. Everyone, of course, knows of Francis Scott Key’s composition of the National Anthem during the British Navy’s bombardment of Baltimore during the War of 1812, and more recently, the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima during World War II.
Flags also figure prominently in our common lives and speech: the referee throws his flag to indicate a penalty in football; the policeman “flags” us for speeding; a red flag on the beach means that the surf’s up and beware the undertow, etc. Although I never became a signalman, flags have also been significant in my life. For almost half of it, my workday, theoretically, began at 0800 with the raising of the flag, and ended at sunset with its lowering. The ship with the senior captain would be in charge of deciding when it was exactly 8 a.m., and/or sunset, and they would sound “Colors” by either whistle or bugle on a loudspeaker, and all the other ships would follow along. In a big homeport like Norfolk or San Diego, with 20 or 30 ships, there would sometimes be a time lag of at least a minute as the junior ships chimed in, resulting in a cacophony of sound any sailor will remember.
In both boot camp and Officer Candidate School, I was the guidon flag carrier, which meant that everyone had to stay in step with me while marching. I suppose I was chosen because I have short legs. I was on a ship in Istanbul, Turkey, when a friend of mine, drunk, hauled down a Turkish national flag and raised it back upside down. He was arrested; we had to leave him, and as far as I know, he is still in jail. If you ever saw the movie, “Midnight Express” (1978), you know you don’t want to be in a Turkish jail. It’s also not by accident that those clowns overseas who are rioting against us choose to publicly burn our flag as it is a symbol of all they detest. Unfortunately, I’m seeing more and more of such behavior right here at home. Merle Haggard might not be your style, but I think he got it right in “Okie From Muskogee” – “waving Old Glory down at the courthouse.”
When I was a kid, I visited the museum of the 2eme Regiment Etranger de Parachutistes (Second Foreign Legion Parachute Regiment) in Calvi, Corsica. It consists mostly of flags representing the exploits of the French Foreign Legion from Mexico to Indochina. Many of them are stained with blood. I left there with an idea of what true bravery is. Flags are perhaps an anachronism to some, but one can’t discount the importance of symbols: a piece of cloth, a hank of hair, a treasured photograph, a wedding ring, a cross, a Star of David. It’s symbols and the importance we give them that make life meaningful.
Light a candle for me.
Benny Hornsby, a resident of Oak Grove, is a retired U.S. Navy captain. Visit bennyhornsby.com or write him at email@example.com.