Hoisting the flag rooted in disparate emotions

Posted: Monday, September 24, 2001

Not once in his 38 years, Alvin Ray says, did it occur to him to wear the red, white and blue of his country -- much less raise Old Glory at his home in Petworth, a black neighborhood in Washington, D.C.

But there it is -- a perfectly uncreased 8-foot-high, 4-foot-wide beauty that seems big enough to wrap his small gray home like a Christmas present.

No doubt about Ray's sense of citizenship and duty -- he's a Washington police officer, after all. But putting out a flag? As a black person seeing the flag through the lens of slavery and discrimination, he had to think. Still, up it went.

''I'm not a 'rah-rah USA USA' kind of guy,'' said Ray. ''But since Tuesday, I've felt violated. They attacked us here at home.''

Gripping the fabric, Ray nodded.

''It looks nice here,'' he said, ''and it makes a statement.''

Americans everywhere are raising Old Glory, but they don't all mean the same thing when they do.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks brought people together in grief, fear and anger -- and honoring those who died is the basic message of those hoisting the flag.

''Every time I do it, I consider what it represents,'' says Mario Vega, who cried when he lowered the flag to half-staff in front of the Harvest Time Church in north Houston shortly after the attacks.

But there are other thoughts, too. Baby boomers recall protests during the Vietnam era when flags, along with draft cards, burned. Some raise the flag to say thanks to a loved one. Some are commemorating a personal loss.

The flag's meaning is in the eye of the beholder, said John Bodnar, chairman of the Indiana University history department and expert on patriotism and its symbols. The peacenik and the warmonger, standing side by side, can wave the same flag and hold diametrically opposed views of the world, Bodnar said.

''For some people, the flag expresses a desire for a safe and secure home,'' he said. ''For others, it's a plea for peace and still others can view a flag display as a command to go out and destroy evil in the world.''

Just as the commemorative music in the past week differs -- ''God Bless America'' for listeners to pop music stations, James Brown's ''The Big Payback'' for urban contemporary listeners -- so does the flag raising.

The simple act, performed millions of times across the country in the wake of the attacks, has put the Stars and Stripes up on front porches, in apartment windows, atop car antennas, on jacket lapels.

But it's not such a simple act, after all, the flag-raisers will tell you.

Putting out a tattered flag from her third-story San Francisco apartment window clashed, in Margaret Schultz's mind, with the pacifist, left-leaning political fires that she said burn deep within her.

''I would see myself lighting candles, and going to a march or a gathering, or giving money, but not a flag,'' said Schultz, a 37-year-old management consultant. ''Because again, I equate usually the flag as being blindly supporting the president or military.''

But Schultz decided with her roommate and boyfriend to hang Old Glory just the same.

Brought up by a Jewish atheist psychiatrist mother and a Methodist documentary filmmaker father in New York City, Schultz said she fears for her adopted brother in Atlanta, who is black and has converted to Islam. His name alone, Shakir Taleb-din Schultz, is a testimony to the American melting pot.

Schultz still harbors some misgivings about the message her flag might send to her neighbors and friends. But she shoves them aside. She hopes those who know her understand.

''I don't want to put the flag up in a nationalist way, but more in a global way. To say 'We're OK, we're together on this.' I think the flag ... it doesn't usually represent peace, but it can. A place united.''

A paper flag, cut from a local newspaper, is the testament of a survivor.

Mary Jane Ellis, 71, of Mullens, W.Va., lost her home when 10 inches of rain fell on July 8, causing record floods that killed two, destroyed 1,500 homes and damaged 3,500 others in southern West Virginia.

Among possessions she lost was the big, beautiful cloth flag that graced her home for years on holidays.

So now, a flag printed in her local newspaper will have to do.

Taped to the window of the mobile home she moved into last week, the flag now serves notice that Ellis was dealt one of life's cruelest blows -- and survived it.

''It's made out of paper, but it still shows we're all in this together. Just like in the floods, we have to help each other,'' she said. ''The flood is like a death. You lose everything you own and you have to start all over again.

''This (Sept. 11) tragedy is like a death to us all.''

A small fabric flag affixed with surgical tape to the bumper of Ladder Truck No. 1 of the Barre City Fire Department in Vermont is a remembrance for fallen comrades and the sad possibilities of the job.

Around 9 a.m. on Sept. 11, the Barre company was at a senior citizens home responding to a false alarm. As Chief Douglas Brent, 47, and others left the building, an elderly woman stuck her head out the window and said: ''You guys should be glad you're not in New York today.''

The department put flags on all its trucks after the attacks.

In front of the firehouse is a modest shrine of patriotism and firefighter loyalties. Beneath another flag and a red, white and blue wreath are two firefighting boots with red and white carnations and signs reading, ''Fill The Boot, FDNY.''

Brent wears a black sash over his badge.

''I think it's made people revisit their values and look at this place and say, 'Hey, it may have problems, but I'm damn proud of it,'' said the nine-year veteran of the 15-member department in the town just south of Montpelier.

''People gotta have a way to show their grief, people gotta have a way to show their support,'' he said.

A cotton flag, folded in a triangle, sat in the bottom of a chest for the past 25 years. Now the heirloom, passed down to Joe Curran from his godparents, is being called into service.

This past week, Curran nailed it to the front of his Warner, N.H., barn with a mix of anger, pain and sorrow, but mostly pride in the nation.

''The people here are kind and we get the job done,'' said Curran, a 38-year-old Desert Storm veteran, noting that passing drivers honked as he stood on a ladder to put up the flag.

Warner, a town established in 1774, sent men to fight in the Revolutionary War battles of Lexington and Concord, and Bunker Hill. The terrorists' assault on America is mobilizing people again, Curran said.

''We all are realizing we are all so much in common that we're getting closer together,'' he said.

The placement is a bit odd. The flag hangs vertically from a pole attached at a right angle to a corner of the brick house in Sioux Falls, S.D. Fritz Thiner tried two years ago to put up a traditional flagpole on his property. An ordinance forbade it.

No matter. To him the 2-by-5-foot flag means honor.

These days, Thiner can't stop thinking about the stories his father tells of his service in the U.S. Army during World War II.

How unexploded shells bounced off his tank.

How the ovens used to exterminate Jewish prisoners were still warm to the touch when his company entered a German death camp near the war's conclusion.

Those thoughts and more flooded the mind of the 39-year-old meat cutter when he put up the flag at his home Wednesday.

''The pride for my dad and what he went through,'' said Thiner, a soft-spoken husband and father of two.

Raising the flag meant two things.

Honor the victims. Honor U.S. Army Sgt. Paul J. Thiner.

The reds are more pinkish these days and the blues long ago surrendered their brightness on Ryan Adamec's well-worn flag.

But none of that matters for the Morgantown, W. Va., man who is displaying the 3-by-5-foot Old Glory on the outside deck of his apartment.

Nothing was going to stop him from showing pride in his country and the heartache of knowing the terror strike means life here will never be the same.

The threadbare flag doesn't even belong to him. ''I went to my parents and stole one,'' said Adamec, a nurse at West Virginia University Hospital.

For him, the flag symbolizes ''the ability to do as we please, up until now. A feeling of safety, part of that which has been taken away.''

If anything positive can be salvaged from these awful days, Adamec said it is a sense of kinship.

''I look at people differently over the last week. Even though I don't know you, I for some reason feel close to you. I hope some of that sticks around after a few months pass,'' he said.

EDITOR'S NOTE -- Contributing to this story were Associated Press writers Michael Graczyk in Houston, Michael Warren in San Francisco, Allison Barker and John Raby in West Virginia, Mike Eckel in Vermont, Lori Ayotte in New Hampshire and Steven Barrett in South Dakota.

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