Paul Plamann isn't the kind of person who likes to tell people when they've done something wrong. But when it comes to the American flag, he can't help but speak up.
This was the case one day last autumn when, while driving by a bank near his Gardenville home, the 61-year-old Army veteran saw an American flag whose broad stripes and bright stars had lost their perilous fight against time and the elements. The flag was shredded and worn, in other words, "just not flyable," he explains.
Plamann sent the bank a polite, anonymous postcard suggesting they replace their flag with a new banner. They did.
"The flag is not just a piece of material," Plamann says. "It's a symbol of our country."
He recognizes that most people who fly the flag in front of their homes and businesses have honorable intentions. But Plamann, who has raised and lowered Fort McHenry's famed stars and stripes hundreds of times in his 32-year career as a park ranger, also knows that people often unknowingly disrespect the American flag by incorrectly displaying the banner. They leave their flag out in the rain, don't illuminate it at night or allow it to brush against the ground or dust their porch railing.
"A lot of folks just aren't aware of flag etiquette," he says.
Do you have to burn a flag if it touches the ground? Can a flag stay out all night? Should a flag fly in the rain? Every day Mark Morais of F.W. Haxel Co. fields these and other flag etiquette questions from would-be flag wavers yearning to do the right thing. (His answers are: You don't have to burn a flag if it hits the ground; it can stay out if illuminated; and flags generally shouldn't fly in the rain.)
"People seem confused," says Morais, a sales manager for the Baltimore-based flag manufacturer, which has made and sold millions of American flags and banners during its six decades in the business. "Basically what you need to know is this: The American flag needs to be treated with respect."
Sounds simple. Still, some of what flag manufacturers and other experts have to say is surprising.
For example, it's OK to burn the American flag. In fact a private burning ceremony is the proper way to dispose of a banner that's not in good enough condition to display. "We burn the flag out of respect for what it was," says Morais, adding that the Boy Scouts and the American Legion hold periodic flag-burning ceremonies as a public service.
And even though you may wish to honor your country and your heritage on the same flagpole, you should resist the urge.
"Never fly another country's flag under the American flag," advises Rick Wyatt, owner of CRW Flags in Glen Burnie. Doing so would send the message that the United States is superior to the other country in times of war. Instead, Wyatt tells customers to take a lesson from Oriole Park at Camden Yards, where the American flag usually flies in the tallest of the three flagpoles, flanked by the Maryland and Baltimore flags. When the Montreal Expos, Toronto Blue Jays or Cuban national teams are in town, the park leaves the center flagpole empty and flies the two national flags at the same height on separate flagpoles.
Flag etiquette, like other forms of etiquette, has evolved over time. It's only been since 1976 that anyone who wanted to could fly the flag 24 hours a day. Before that, an executive order was required.
And even though the United States Flag Code says that American flag patches shouldn't be worn on anything other than military uniforms, the familiar image now graces everything from Ralph Lauren logos on T-shirts to neckties, sweater-clad stuffed teddy bears and pairs of boxer shorts.
Not everyone is pleased with the evolution.
"I get a little upset when I see the American flag on shorts," confesses Pat Perluke, spokeswoman for the National Flag Day Foundation, a nonprofit group based in Baltimore. "I'm not sure why, but I do."
Some elements of flag etiquette will probably never change, however. For as long as there is an American flag, you shouldn't fly it upside down. That's a sign of dire distress.
Most people know which end of the American flag is up, says Plamann, the Fort McHenry ranger. "But the Maryland flag ..." A chuckle. "Well, that's another story."
How to display the flag
Some things to know about displaying the American flag:
* Always hoist the flag briskly and lower it ceremoniously.
* Display the flag only in fair weather or use an all-weather flag.
* If you display the flag overnight, make sure it is illuminated.
* No other flag or pennant should be placed above or at the same level to the right of the U.S. flag.
* Don't allow the flag to touch anything beneath it, including the ground, water and the floor.
* Don't use the flag as bedding or drapery. It also should not be used as decoration in which it is drawn back or folded.
* Always allow the flag to fall free.
* Although it's fine to wear clothing decorated with images of the flag, don't wear an actual U.S. flag. Also, don't use a flag for carrying, holding or delivering anything.