It's still 'What so proudly we hail'd'

Posted: Wednesday, June 13, 2001

When overlooked Flag Day unfurls to little fanfare Thursday, there could be no bigger honor than for the radio people to comb their archives and air an old recording of Marian Anderson's stunning "Star-Spangled Banner."

They could choose her 1939 rendition in front of the Lincoln Memorial in a historic integrated rally organized by Eleanor Roosevelt. Then they might fast forward to Jan. 20, 1961, and find her on the podium next to John F. Kennedy - singing the anthem to the flag at his inauguration.

Not so long ago, in summer camps from Maine to Oregon, the flag rose with the sun before every breakfast. Lazy in getting dressed, children often found themselves arriving after the bugle had begun to blow. Latecomers were forbidden to approach the reverent semi-circle of bowed heads.

From afar, they watched the flag inching its way up, hoisted by a skinny girl ... as proud as if she were a Daughter of the American Revolution. All right hands rested on white shirts, covering the left side of flat chests in a very approximate area of the heart. Sacred protocol dictated that the tardy stop immobile in their tracks until the stars and stripes had come to rest at their pinnacle among the pines.

When the sky turned black with summer rain, it was the flag they were taught to think of first. Only after they had rescued it from raindrops did they run to bring their swimsuits off the line. They got lessons in the right way to fold the flag, in triangles. They dreaded ever dropping it, for they knew the canon prescribed burning for a flag that accidentally touched the ground. ... No doubt crossed their minds: It was a grand old flag.

Wintertimes, they read biographies describing how Betsy Ross had designed and sewn the first flag, and they spent art classes trying to draw 48, then 49, then 50 stars over a blue crayoned rectangle without smudging the background color into the pure white of the stars.

The red and white stripes, though easier, somehow never came out even, the last few scrunched up thinner and thinner to squeeze in all 13.

Every kid across America was doing the same thing. That's why defiling the flag in front of the White House by all those grown-up summer camp alumni a decade later was so traumatic.

Today, only the right-wing fringe inculcates itself with the sacredness of the flag. Nobody looks twice at someone wearing a halter of a hacked-up stars and stripes or starry shorts in incandescent red, white and blue. ...

But, although nobody anymore is brought up on Rudyard Kipling, most still respond to the symbolism of flags. ... Flags bear inflated significance both for the disenfranchised and the newly enfranchised. During the Soviet domination of Czechoslovakia, locals felt a not-so-subtle pressure to display the occupier's flag.

During independence struggles, there are those still ready to die for a flag. If Americans may be jaded by its symbolism, a Third-World freedom fighter would still take the patriotic Civil War verse from John Greenleaf Whittier's "Barbara Frietchie" to heart: "Shoot, if you must, this old gray head, but spare your country's flag,' she said."

When arriving home from abroad, it's the flag that greets us first. Flying its welcome outside every elementary school and post office, it looks crisper, prouder, almost eternal. Thursday, I plan to go outside as night falls, turn my eyes up toward the moon and imagine the flag Neil Armstrong planted there in 1969: its cloth lying limply in the moon's windless day - still intact in the non-erosion of non-atmosphere.

Maybe I'll find myself placing my right hand over my heart. Then, in a voice just loud enough for my own ears to hear, I will whisper the Pledge of Allegiance. For Marian Anderson, for Betsy Ross and for myself.

Schary Motro, a U.S. attorney who lives in Lido Beach, N.Y., and Israel, is a columnist for The Jerusalem Post. Her comments originally were published in Newsday.

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