Penitence saluted

When the Stars and Stripes failed to fly on the Friendship town flagpole last Armistice Day, the lack was readily noticed, and the Good Father Norman Young was circumstantialed into a presumed dereliction of duty. This is a story of small-town crime, Down East. Father Young is the official community vexillological custodian, and while I pleasantly address him as ''Father'' and he seems not to mind, he is the resident pastor of the Friendship Methodist Church. Since the parsonage is not far from the location of the town flagstaff, and since Father Young is willing, he was quickly accepted when he volunteered to put up the flag and take it down. We have had several flag putter-uppers who did all right overall, but the display has been erratic when somebody went on vacation, or forgot. Of late, Father Young's fidelity with the town flag has been monumental, causing at least one leather-faced lobsterman to observe that he's the best Methodist minister Friendship ever had, flagwise. It was a bit sticky on Armistice Day morning when both stores, and the post office, closed, and no school, and everybody felt patriotic, and no flag.

Well, after all - a man of the cloth is not just another public servant. It's all well and good to run up to an ordinary selectman and upbraid him for failing in his statutory duties, calling him a number of unpleasant things. But it is not cricket to accost a parson similarly, accusing him with scorn and contumely, and asking him in uncouth fashion how come he had to go and forget the flag on, of all things, Armistice Day! Gracious!

Yet everybody realized, even if mistaken about it, that the parson was innocently going his way, perhaps pondering a perplexing text, and had allowed The Color simply to escape his mind. One comment was that if the reverend had forgotten, at least Martha would have reminded him - Martha being Mrs. Young and associate and assistant in all public and parochial affairs. Times before when Mr. Young had other errands, Martha would attend the flag. Coastal people appreciate a good hand on a line, and everybody noticed that Martha had a way with a halyard. The whole situation was the finest kind in every respect until Armistice Day.

And the Friendship Town Flag is extra conspicuous when absent. To get to Friendship, one comes ten miles southerly from Route One, along State Highway 220, and comes up a hill with the new library building smack ahead. The flagstaff goes with the library. And no flagstaff anywhere ever looked barer than that one when bare. Father Young's presumed dereliction was clear and distinct. There was one other reason people didn't rush up to Father Young and ask him right out about the flag - he is flag-master by charity. He doesn't draw a princely fee, so it would be unkind to speak to him about a lapse on his own time.

Father Young had a reason of his own for not going public - an understanding man of Christian principles, he didn't exactly know what to do, as a minister, about what had happened. Somebody stole the flag. When he went at twilight to take down the flag for the evening, he unwound the halyard and immediately realized the line was free. It didn't feel like a rope with a flag. So he looked up, and there was no flag. He at once had a strong feeling about the iniquity of anybody who would steal The Flag, and for a moment thought he should go to the police. But as he rewound the halyard and walked home flagless it crossed his mind that since stealing a flag is an unusual offense, it might also have an unusual consequence. He decided to wait and see, and thus helped to compound the community supposition that he had lost his memory.

He did tell a few people, and he had some offers of substitute flags. But he mostly let the thing ride, with enough faith in the goodness of mankind to expect what did, eventually, happen. He and Martha came back to the parsonage one evening after setting up tables for the Christmas fair, and on the doorsill, neatly folded in the American Legion style, inside a plastic bag, was the Friendship Town Flag. We can assume that a disturbed conscience, somewhere, prevailed, and Father Young, with a beaming smile, says he expected that. ''So glad I didn't go to the police!''

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