After Sept. 11 American flag means more

September 24, 2001|By Lisa Goldberg

FOR THE first time in my life, I'm the proud owner of an American flag.

For days, I searched during shopping excursions, while running errands, for a scrap of red, white and star-spangled blue to hang from my apartment balcony.

At every store, every site, I'd get the same response from employees: There's been a run, they'd say, on patriotism.

I thought about digging through the old boxes that store the items from my childhood. But just as I'm certain I've owned dozens of flags throughout my 30 years -- remnants from the parades and holiday parties of my school years -- I'm equally certain that each and every one occupies space at the bottom of a landfill somewhere.

A woman with a flag to spare finally ended my search Thursday. It's small, sure, but who cares? It's striped and spangled and red, white and blue. It's perfect. Sad, isn't it. It took a two-city act of terrorism with thousands of casualties to bring out my patriotism.

Then again, I'm not sure I really understood what it meant to be an American until Sept. 11.

I'm from the me-generation, the ones whose parents provided all, who had it easier than earlier generations. We missed anything and everything -- both good and bad -- that could have shown us how lucky we were to live here, which could have brought us together in triumph or grief.

John F. Kennedy and Camelot? A decade too soon. The civil rights movement? A chapter in history books. The assassinations of JFK, of Robert F. Kennedy, of Martin Luther King Jr.? The subject of someone else's "I remember what I was doing when ..." stories.

We missed Vietnam, the race to the moon, Watergate. And everything since has felt remote.

The Iran hostage crisis was on the other side of the world. The Persian Gulf war seemed more an exercise than a conflict.

Even the bombing in Oklahoma City was a half country away -- terrible, sure, but a seemingly isolated attack.

As a child, I remember learning the Pledge of Allegiance, saying it every day. But I can't ever remember feeling any honor in saying it. I remember waving a flag and watching fireworks on the Fourth of July, but I was more in awe of the fireworks.

I don't remember the last time I went to an Independence Day, Memorial Day or Veterans Day parade, unless it was to write a story. I don't think I could have been bothered to take the time. I'm ashamed of that now.

And so it was, three days after the attacks, that I found myself sitting on the futon in my family room, watching reruns of the HBO miniseries that chronicled our efforts, during the 1960s, to beat Russia to the moon.

The episode that day was all about the first moon landing -- July 20, 1969.

I vaguely remember my mother telling stories about Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon, about how the power went out suddenly in our Randallstown home and she and my father missed "the moment" they'd desperately wanted to see -- the "giant leap for mankind."

As I sat in front of the television Sept. 14, I found myself wishing I'd been alive to see that.

How awe-inspiring it must have been to experiment and succeed, and to do so both in the name of science and country.

I would have much rather learned my patriotism from a moon landing than from mass destruction.

After being alive for 30 years, here's what I learned in one week:

The American flag is a symbol of my freedom. The Pledge is all about pride and loyalty. Each and every word of the anthem is about independence and honor and the privilege of being American.

In an instant, an act of terrorism taught me more about my country than the words of a textbook, the lessons of a teacher or the pleas of an aging veteran.

I can only hope I never take America for granted again.

Lisa Goldberg is a reporter in the Howard County bureau of The Sun.

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