I learned to fold the flag, Old Glory, when I was 10 years old and in the Cub Scouts. It was part of a program about George Washington crossing the Delaware that we put on at the Lumberton Methodist Church. My job, a minor role, was to stand in the bow of the makeshift boat, with my hand at my brow, and stare resolutely at the distant shore. I remember it well because, the next week, they kicked me out of the “den” because I didn’t have a Cub Scout uniform. That was also the week, for the second time, my daddy got blackballed for membership in the Masonic Lodge because he was a drunk. He seemed to think that having two ships shot out from under him during World War II should count for something, but it didn’t. Mama said not to worry because these setbacks happen in life and they just “put hunger in your belly and determination in your heart.” I was very hungry and determined that week.
It might surprise some how often ships and the Navy appear when you consider the history of the flag. For example, the story of Old Glory can be traced to the mid-19th century and has sea going antecedents. In 1831, a ship captain from Massachusetts named William Driver coined the nickname “Old Glory” during one of his voyages. Driver had received an American flag from one of his shipmates, which he displayed proudly on his ship, the Charles Doggett. As the Charles Doggett sailed off from a port, Driver saw the American flag flowing gracefully in the wind from the fantail, which prompted him to yell, “Old Glory!” Driver had a close connection to the American flag. When he was just 13 years old, he left home to become a cabin boy on a ship plying the East Coast. During those years, he grew to appreciate the flag and everything it stood for – Shoot! All this time, I’ve been giving credit to Merle Haggard because he talked about “waving Old Glory down at the courthouse” in his “fighting side of me” song, “Oakie from Muskogee.”
Even before Driver, the USS Ranger, a ship of our Continental Navy, under the command of John Paul Jones, was the first American ship to receive an official nine-gun salute of the Stars and Stripes at sea from a foreign ship (French) in 1778. And 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. We may lip-sync the words past the first stanza, but the words referring to the flag: “Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight, O’er the ramparts we watch’ed were so gallantly streaming” are at least familiar. Ironically, the tune is from a drinking song. Some might be shocked to learn that the melody key assigned to accompany the lyrics of the “Star Spangled Banner” was a popular English drinking song called “To Anacreon in Heaven.” Written around 1775 by John Stafford Smith, the song honored the ancient Greek poet, Anacreon, a lover of wine.
As I think about it, the only country I’ve visited who revered the flag as much as us, besides possibly the English from which we copied many of our traditions, is France. Everything shuts down on Bastille Day, which is their version of the 4th of July. Another country that possibly comes close, in my experience, is Turkey. I was once on a ship in Istanbul, when a friend of mine, drunk, hauled down a Turkish national flag and hoisted it back upside down. He was reported by the locals; arrested; we had to leave him in jail; and as far as I know, he is still there. If you ever saw the movie, “Midnight Express,” you know that you don’t want to spend any time in a Turkish jail.
However patriotic or unpatriotic one might be, flags also figure prominently in our lives and speech: the referee throws his or her flag to indicate a penalty in football; the policeman “flags” us for speeding; a red flag on the beach means sharks are about or the surfs up and beware the undertow; if we are trying to make a decision, we “run a choice up the flagpole and see what happens;” if we stop someone, we “flag them down;” if something seems too good to be true, it “raises a red flag;” if we win the race, we “take the checkered flag;” if something upsets us, it’s like “a red flag to a bull,” if we surrender, we “wave the white flag;” in times of national emergency, we “rally around the flag,” etc.
There are also many myths regarding our flag that you often see trotted around the time of national holidays. Let’s look at some of the most popular. Probably the most pervasive one is that George Washington walked into Betsy Ross’ Philadelphia upholstery shop and asked her to sew a national flag. This story originated with her grandson, William Canby, in 1870, and there is little or no evidence to back it up. Additionally, such flags were usually made for naval forces, which Washington, an Army man, had nothing to do with. Another myth is that Americans have always flown the flag on their homes, on flag poles in their yards, etc. In reality, prior to the Civil War, flags were only flown in an official capacity on ships, forts, and public buildings. After the war, however, there was a burst of patriotism, and citizens flying the flag became commonplace.
Some also believe that it’s illegal to burn the American flag. Unfortunately, that’s not correct. In a landmark case of 1989, “Texas vs. Johnson,” the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that desecrating the American flag is a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment. Defendant Gregory Lee had burned a flag in protest at the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas. Prior to that ruling, it was illegal to burn the flag. Subsequent efforts on the judicial and legislative fronts to ban flag burning have failed; although, I wouldn’t recommend exercising that “right” in Mississippi.
Contrary to what some believe, it is legal to display the flag at night. According to the Federal Flag Code, signed on June 22, 1942, by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, while it is customary to only display the flag from sunrise to sunset, it can be displayed 24 hours a day if it is illuminated in darkness. Surprisingly to some, violations of the U.S. Flag Code also are not enforced, and one cannot be penalized for noncompliance.
Finally, you often hear that only a veteran’s coffin can be draped with the American flag. Again, that’s not true. Nowhere in the Flag Code does it say that the flag can only cover the casket of a veteran. While the Veterans’ Department does provide flags for the funeral services of veterans and active-duty service members, any patriotic American citizen can have their coffin covered with their nation’s flag if they so desire. When a flag is used to cover a coffin, it should be placed with the union, the blue field with stars, at the head and over the left shoulder of the deceased. The flag should not be lowered into the grave or allowed to touch the ground.
When I was stationed at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, I somehow got into the regular rotation to conduct Protestant funerals at Arlington National Cemetery. Consequently, counting my funerals there and over 30 years as a Navy chaplain, I estimate I have presented folded American flags to well over 100 wives, mothers, and other bereaved family members. To be honest, it’s hard not to become inured to the tragedy unfolding before your eyes. I guess it’s a built in psychological “fail safe,” a protective device to keep one from breaking down emotionally at the gravesite. It’s hard to separate feelings of sympathy and empathy but, overseeing the proceeding, you must keep yourself under control. On the other hand, it wasn’t my style to be unemotional in delivering death notices, and I’ve delivered hundreds.
On ships, I often had the feeling sailors were avoiding me, afraid that I was the bearer of bad news. I felt like one of those medieval lepers, that everyone avoided, and that I should have someone walking before me, ringing a bell and warning everyone. If I had a tragic Red Cross emergency telegram to deliver, I would often sit down and cry with the recipient. Probably the worst one I ever delivered was when I had to tell a sailor that his wife and three small children had drowned when driving across a supposed dry riverbed in the Arizona desert. There was also the time a big, strapping Naval Academy football player literally attacked me when I had to tell him that his father had been robbed and murdered that morning when he opened his small grocery store in rural Arkansas. Luckily, his roommates pulled him off me.
It takes two people to fold the flag properly, as it should never touch the ground. Both people should hold out the flag waist high, right side up, with its surface parallel to the ground, always keeping the tension in the fabric. Fold the flag in half lengthwise, bringing the striped lower half over the canon (which is the blue field of stars) and holding the edges together. Fold it again lengthwise, bringing the canon to the outside. Start a triangular fold by bringing the striped corner of the folded edge up to meet the open edge. The outer point is then turned inward to form a second triangle. Continue folding the flag in this manner eight more times. These folds, 13 in all, will bring the red and white stripes into the canon, resulting in a final neat triangle which is supposedly emblematic of the cocked hats worn by soldiers who served under General George Washington and sailors who served under Captain John Paul Jones.
There are also several “scripts” (American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Boy Scouts, etc.) that you often hear recited regarding what each fold of the flag means (for example, the second fold is a symbol of our belief in the eternal life), but you have to be careful, in public settings, that they don’t violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution which requires that any such expression not create the reasonable impression that the government is sponsoring, endorsing, or inhibiting religion generally, or favoring or disfavoring a particular religion.
One of my few claims to fame is that I have been part of two “living” flags: one on the “grinder” (marching field) at the Navy boot camp in San Diego, and the other on the deck of an aircraft carrier in Norfolk. Each flag was made up of thousands of sailors and Marines holding red, white, and blue cards, and so positioned that, when viewed from high above, a picture-perfect flag appeared and sometimes rippled in the wind. The largest flag I’ve noticed in this area is the one flown at the Dizzy Dean highway rest stop on Highway 49 just north of Wiggins; and the biggest one I ever saw flying freely was on the Cal Worthington Ford dealership in Long Beach, California. Cal was famous around Southern California for ending his television ads with the promise: “If that’s not the truth, I’ll eat a bug.” Be that as it may, the most impressive and memorable flags that I’ve seen in my life are the miniature ones that I see posted on the graves of American veterans. Bigger is not always better.
Light a candle for me.
Benny Hornsby of Oak Grove is a retired U.S. Navy captain. Visit his website, bennyhornsby.com, or email him: email@example.com.