I'M STANDING in the check-out line at a Baltimore discount department store. With the Fourth of July approaching, the impulse-purchase racks have been cleared of Raisinets and filled with shrink-wrapped packages containing 3-by-5-foot American flags. A red, white and blue label on each package reads: "United States Flag/Drapeau des Etats-Unis."
First I think: English and French, great. We're finally reaching out to a global market. Then I think: Wait a minute, what global market? Because surely if there's one product with close to zero export potential, it's a flag.
Well, no doubt the flags were manufactured in Canada. That would explain the French. But now hold on again. Does anyone really expect me to show my patriotism by flying a faux Old Glory, one that was probably stitched together by tenth-generation Loyalists at the Benedict Arnold Flag Co. in Halifax? Come to think of it, the flags probably aren't 3 by 5. They're probably metric!
I elbow my way to the front of the line and snatch a flag from the rack. The label identifies the manufacturer as an official-sounding company with a New York City address. Whew! Then I notice the small print under the universal product code: "MADE IN TAIWAN."
That does it! I'm no knee-jerk patriot. I don't honk when the big chrome letters on the car in front of me spell "Dodge" beneath a tiny sticker that says, "Manufactured by Mitsubishi." And I even understand that my "American-made" TV set was really assembled in Haiti by Mexican immigrants with parts imported from Singapore. But a flag?
Suddenly I have the same "Body Snatchers"-inspired, "How-long-has-this-been-going-on?" feeling in the pit of my stomach that I got when I first noticed all the albums in the record stores had been replaced by CDs. Is it possible American flags were always made overseas, and I just never noticed? Was the flag raised over Iwo Jima actually made in Japan? How about the original Star-Spangled Banner? After all, Francis Scott Key wasn't even sure our flag was still there until the end of the third stanza, so you could hardly expect him to read the fine print on the label.
But no, a country that once had the know-how to make its own cars and radios must have made its own flags as well. Right?
Well, maybe . . .
"Betsy, it looks terrific. It'll be an inspiration to the boys at Valley Forge, and believe me, they need it."
"Thanks, general, but I can't take all the credit. My Jamaican subcontractor did a great job getting the cotton shipped to Manchester on time. And my British shop foreman kept the weavers working around the clock to meet your July 4 deadline."
"Er, yes, but the flag itself was actually made here in Philadelphia, wasn't it?"
"Sure, except for the stars. I had to contract them out to a freelance seamstress in Guyana. Oh, and the stripes. The Irish came in with the low bid there, and I couldn't afford to turn 'em down."
"Betsy, this is ridiculous! Are you telling me we're fighting for our independence under a flag that's entirely a product of the British empire?"
"Not entirely, sir, no. The grommets aren't British."
"Sure, take a look. You can't get work like that from the British. That's precision metalwork."
"Ah, Paul Revere, of course! I should have known. Well, at least . . ."
"Are you kidding? With his overhead? Besides, stirring up every Middlesex village and farm with all that alarmist Britain-bashing isn't exactly good for business."
"Well, fine. But you do at least assure me that the British didn't make the grommets?"
"Absolutely. I already told you, they don't do that kind of precision metalwork."
"All right, Betsy, I give up. Who does?"
Bob Oeste writes from Baltimore.