Regarding the flag, again

The American flag has never brought tears to my eyes.

They say that people are most deeply affected by events they are old enough to remember, but too young to have any impact upon. I graduated from high school the year the last lonely helicopter lifted off the roof of the United States Embassy in Saigon.

For me, the flag soaked up, indelibly, subtly, the stains of Vietnam. Antiwar protesters adopted the peace sign. As patriotic as their motives might have been, they abandoned the very symbol that stands for the freedom to ask: "Are we doing the right thing?"

Those who supported the war brandished the flag as they proclaimed that most chilling of political sentiments, "My country, right or wrong." Flag-burning by antiwar demonstrators, and overreactions by conservatives, seemed to bring out the worst of both sides.

During the first week of September, I was cleaning out the garage when I discovered a small cardboard box. An American flag lay neatly folded inside. I considered throwing it away or putting it into the Goodwill pile; certainly, I had no thought of displaying it. Then I found a certificate at the bottom of the box.

Years ago, as an idealistic, newly minted college graduate, I had worked on Capitol Hill as a congressional aide. I had gone to Washington for purely patriotic reasons, I suppose, though at the time I would never have described it that way. "Patriotic" had a vaguely red-necked tinge.

Through my boss, I had arranged for a special flag for my grandparents. According to the certificate, the flag in the box "was flown over the United States Capitol on July 24, 1981."

My grandmother was the kind of dear lady who would thank me profusely for gifts, then give them back to me years later, untouched. So it was with the flag. Not at all fond of flags, but very fond of my grandmother, I decided to keep it.

In the days following Sept. 11, flags have sprouted everywhere. A leather-clad, tattooed Hell's Angel passed me on the freeway, an enormous flag somehow mounted to the back of his Harley. A garden of tiny flags has blossomed in front of our local fire station.

My daughter, to whom the Vietnam War is as distant as the Peloponnesian, made a flag out of paper and glued it to her T-shirt.

Most houses on our street display a United States flag. Some are old and tattered, some are new, and some are no more than a newsprint flag that arrived inside the Sunday paper.

Now I think I know what it must have been like in the dark days of World War II, when flags flew because Americans clearly understood we were the last, best hope of the entire world. So few of the issues we confront are truly black and white, with no shades of gray. Stem-cell research? School vouchers? Tax cuts?

If we are honest, we can always find some wisdom in the other guy's position. But Nazism, apartheid, terrorism - they have no redeeming arguments. It is a wonderful thing, a noble thing, to unite against evil.

To Americans who had lived through World War II, the flag-burnings of the Vietnam era must have felt like a dagger in the heart. Memories as well as fabric were attacked, turned dark, and crumpled.

This week I took the flag out of its box and carefully nailed it up across the garage door, crying all the while. It was so clean, its colors still so bright. I hope, in the days and months and years to come, it will continue to be both a symbol of unity against evil - and the freedom to keep asking, "Are we doing the right thing?"

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