Giving flag the glory it deserves

May 27, 2002|By KEVIN COWHERD

TO REACH THE guru of flag etiquette, you go downtown to the Fallon Federal Building, which is on its usual Def-Con 4 security status, and make your way past a warren of small, ground-floor offices to the desk of Lance Sweigart.

Sweigart is the Maryland service officer for the American Legion, and this morning he's decked out like Uncle Sam's advance man.

Not only does he have a large flag ribbon on the lapel of his blue pin-striped suit, but he's also wearing a dazzling red-white-and-blue necktie, one of 30 he owns.

To his right, Old Glory stands majestically in a flag-stand and on the wall to his left is a large photo of Sweigart performing as the senior soloist with the U.S. Army Field Band Soldiers Chorus, with all sorts of American flags waving in the background.

Taking in this whole scene, I say to Sweigart: You should really loosen up and stop repressing the patriotic feelings welling inside you. For God's sake, man, let them out!

Sweigart, who is 58 and lives in Laurel, smiles without a hint of self-consciousness.

"In the Army, they called me Sgt. Major America," he says. "Once, I wore red, white and blue every day for 45 days."

So for Memorial Day, Sweigart seems like the perfect guy to address the proper ways to display the flag.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, there has been a definite upsurge in the number of Americans flying the flag, which warms the heart of Sweigart, who introduces himself as "a real conservative Republican with 30 years of military service."

But there`s also been a definite upsurge in the number of citizens who don't know what they're doing when they fly the flag, either.

Let's begin with the subject of worn flags, I say. You see so many of them now, flags that look like they've been around since the War of 1812, yet they're still flying from homes and businesses.

Sweigart winces, as if the image of all those neglected flags is right now causing him immense psychic pain.

"The thing that bothers me the most," he says, "is when you see a battle-fatigued, wind-tattered, torn Old Glory attached to a [car] antenna, or you see a car flag that looks like it's been there since World War II. Hey, it's time to replace the flag."

Equally as bad, many well-meaning people flying the flag from their cars seem clueless as to exactly how the flag should be displayed.

"If you're going to display the flag on a car," says Sweigart, "it should be as close to the right front fender as you can get."

And - if there are any die-hards out there still flying Ravens car-flags after the team unloaded almost every recognizable face and basically became the Baltimore Nobodies - your Ravens flag would go on the left if you're also flying the U.S. flag.

If you fly the flag from a staff in front of your home, says Sweigart, the staff should be to the left of the home as it's observed from the street. If the flag is hanging from the porch, the union, or blue field, should be in the upper left-hand corner.

At this point, Sweigart begins quoting from the Flag Code guidelines - "Title 36, Chapter 10 of the United States Code, paragraphs 170-178 ... " - so I know things are getting serious.

The flag, he says, should not be flown in inclement weather, unless it's an all-weather flag. It should be displayed only from sunrise to sunset. If the flag is flown at night, he says, it should be illuminated for what the guidelines describe as a "patriotic effect."

Oh, and one more thing, says Sweigart. The flag should never, ever hang so low as to touch the ground - or anything else, for that matter.

"I had a neighbor who flew a huge flag that pretty much covered the house and pretty much hung down to the bushes," he says ominously, then pauses, and I expect to hear: "And that neighbor now sleeps with the fishes."

Instead, what happened was, the neighbor heard a rap on his door one day and there was Sgt. Major (ret.) Lance Sweigart, delivering an impromptu seminar on flag etiquette and the no-no of having Old Glory draped across the azaleas.

Did it work? I ask Sweigart. Did the neighbor see the error of his ways and move the flag? Or did you have to get tough with him?

Sweigart laughs. "No," he says, "he told me the flag was too big to move and there wasn't anything he could do about it."

In any event, as our conversation winds to a close, Sweigart says that on Memorial Day, when we honor our war dead, the flag is flown at half-staff until noon, then raised for the rest of the day. (Technically, it should be first hoisted to the peak of the staff for an instant and then lowered to the half-staff position.)

So I hope we all cheerfully comply with these guidelines today.

Don't make me send Sgt. Major Sweigart over to your house.

Oh, he's a nice enough fellow. But if you have flag issues, this is the last guy you want to see as you're firing up the grill.

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