Showing The Flag

July 04, 2006

"Condense some daily experience into a glowing symbol," wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, "and an audience is electrified."

The United States of America, in all its complexity, is no small enterprise, its citizenry more than a crowd. But over the years, those who designed and refined its flag have kept a healthy charge flowing through our national conversation.

An act by the Second Continental Congress in 1777 resolved that the flag should contain 13 stripes and 13 stars, representing the number of colonies. As the Union expanded, 37 stars were added, though the 13 stripes remained. The flag, like the nation, embraced past and future.

Last week, for the ninth time in 17 years, a congressional body debated whether Americans could express their feelings for their flag by torching it. "Nobody loses a thing by voting for this," Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican, said of the proposed constitutional amendment he sponsored that would have given Congress the power to prohibit flag-burning, "and we gain a great deal by supporting our troops, our veterans." Replied Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, in an editorial: "While I agree that desecration of the flag is abhorrent, I believe that amending the Constitution to prohibit flag desecration flies in the face of First Amendment rights like freedom of speech."

The Byrd side held. By one vote. For now.

Old Glory has meant many things to many people at home and abroad. On America's 230th birthday, six Marylanders extend the conversation.


Yvonne Green, 47, of Rosedale had watched the scene on TV before: a soldier buried at Arlington National Cemetery, the color guard, the officer in charge presenting a crisply folded American flag. "I always thought," Green, says, "how did they get that flag so neat?"

This flag is presented on behalf of a grateful nation as a token of our appreciation for the honorable and faithful service rendered by your loved one.

"Gosh, I never thought I'd be in that position."

Last year, Garry and Yvonne Green were presented a flag at the Arlington burial of their 23-year-old daughter, Toccara Green. "Tee," as she was nicknamed, was an Army motor and transport operator in the final months of her second tour of duty.

She was killed Aug. 14 after explosives detonated near her supply convoy in Iraq. Green, the first military woman from Maryland to die in the war, had just returned to duty after spending the Fourth of July at home.

"In our family, we would always have the cookout. Tee was home on vacation last year for our cookout," says her mother, a retired bank employee. Ribs, ice cream, 90 friends and family members.

There will be no cookout this year. "That won't be happening, no, no."

The Green family flies a flag daily from a pole in their backyard, where another flag can be seen from a nearby veterans memorial. In the basement, they keep the Arlington flag in a case along with their daughter's military medals.

Toccara seemed destined for the military. She spent four years in ROTC before enlisting. "We knew that is where her heart really was," her mother says.

Having learned how to work on cars from her father, Green fittingly was assigned to the Army's 57th Transportation Company.

The young woman would die on a road in western Iraq.

In late August, the Greens, and their son, Garry Jr., gathered at Arlington. "The minute they put the flag in your hand," Yvonne Green says, "it locks you in ... with the world. It's hard to explain.

"You are just locked in."

Rob Hiaasen


Nine-year-old Griffin Cosgrove is mad for baseball. He can play any position, though he prefers pitching. He enjoys roughhousing with his border collie, Polly, and feeding his fish, Fishy. One of his favorite television shows is America's Got Talent! on NBC.

Griffin can say, proudly, that he's burned the American flag -- twice. And not even a five-star general could fault him.

Recently this Cub Scout who lives with his parents and brother in Davidsonville learned the proper way to retire a tattered and dilapidated American flag.

Last Thursday, Griffin and the other Cub Scouts participated in his second flag retirement ceremony at the Camp Broad Creek Memorial Scout Reservation near Whiteford in Harford County.

"You cut the flag apart while the bugles play taps," says Griffin, a fourth-grade pupil at Davidsonville Elementary School.

"First you cut away the blue square with the stars in it. Then you cut the stripes apart, and put the red ones in one pile and the white ones in a separate pile. You have to be careful not to mix up the colors.

"One by one, you feed the stripes into the fah." (Griffin and his family moved to Baltimore from Connecticut five years ago, and he still retains the Yankee inflection that glosses over the I and the R in fire.)

The ashes from the burnt flag are carefully swept and placed in a glass tube, while the grommets are placed in another tube.

The next time a flag is retired, the reserved ashes will be used to feed the fire.

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