Small Wonders: Honoring Old Glory

The flattening rays of the setting sun hit me from the west as I drove up the Glendale (2) Freeway into Montrose. From seemingly nowhere, a flock of snowy doves performed aerial acrobatics overhead. And on the seat beside me was Old Glory. "Old" being the operative word.

That flag has been through a lot these past years. Draped over the shoulders of those wishing to glorify themselves; worn as a lapel pin by others out of mere duty. Though its stripes have weathered, its stars falling off, our American flag is majestic and enduring. So it would be disrespectful to let this one fly in front of my house in its tattered condition any longer.

When my friend Nick heard that I was disposing of my old flag, he chastised me.

"You're in trouble," he scolded. "You can either donate it to a local Boy Scout troop or the VFW." One doesn't dispose of the flag, he told me. One "retires" it ceremoniously and honorably.

So that's why I'm heading to Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in the hills this fine evening. Boy Scout Troop 317 is holding a Court of Honor to graduate some Scouts through the ranks and present others with hard-earned awards. And they've agreed to retire my flag.

Scoutmaster Rich Toyon carefully took it from me as if it were a wounded bird and handed it to his Scouts. They unfolded my work and refolded the flag properly. This may be one reason I never made it past Cub Scouts.

Sitting among the gathered families in Healy Hall, I was struck by the pride filling the room.

Gangly young men with cowlicks disobeying any hair product, pants too long and feet they've yet to grow into, opened the proceedings with the Color Guard presenting their healthy flags. Parents and siblings looked on proudly.

I've stood with 56,000 people at Dodger Stadium holding my hat over my heart while singing the national anthem. That's nothing compared to the patriotism and sense of community one feels in the intimate setting of a group of Scouts during the Pledge of Allegiance.

I remember these events as a Cub Scout; twitchy boys jostling and joking with one another. And apparently things haven't changed in a generation. But these lads are obedient and attentive.

Before scavenging the beads, shoulder cords and badges off my brother's uniform after he left the Scouts, I did earn a few on my own. But I don't recall ever getting merit badges for golf, snow sports, metalwork and pet care. As with video games and playground equipment, kids today don't know how good they have it.

Soon Toyon directed everyone outside to a safely built fire. We formed a circle around the pit, and the solemnity of the moment was thick; a hush came over us. Nothing but crackling coals.

Four young men opened my flag for all to see one last time, each holding a corner, and approached the fire.

"I am your flag," a troop leader announced. "I was born on June 14, 1777. I am more than just a piece of cloth shaped into a colorful design; I am the silent sentinel of freedom for the greatest sovereign nation on Earth. I am the inspiration for which American patriots gave their lives and fortunes; I am the emblem of America.

"I have led your sons into battle from Valley Forge to Vietnam. I have been there through the Civil War, two World Wars, at Gettysburg, Flanders, Korea, the Gulf War, all of them. I was there with George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and I am here with you now.

"I have flown through peace and war. Through strife and prosperity, and amidst it all, I have always been respected. My red stripes symbolize the blood spilled in defense of this glorious nation. My white stripes, the burning tears shed by Americans who lost their sons and daughters in battle. My blue field represents God's heaven under which I fly, and my stars, clustered together, unify the 50 states as one for God and country."

One last time we pledged allegiance to this flag, with liberty and justice for all.

"I am 'Old Glory' and I proudly wave on high," another troop leader added. "Honor me, respect me, and defend me with your lives. Never let our enemies tear me down from my lofty position, lest I never return. Keep alight the fires of patriotism. Strive earnestly for the spirit of democracy, and keep me always as a symbol of freedom, liberty, and peace in our country.

"When comes the time when I am old and faded, do not let me fly in disrepair. Rather, retire me from my duties only to replace me with a new flag so that I may continue to symbolize our country."

With hands over hearts and a final salute, that tired flag was gently lowered into the flames, returning to the twilit heavens in a column of smoke. In this silent, reverent moment, Toyon pulled out his harmonica and played "Taps" better than any bugle player I've ever heard.

All of the Scouts I contacted were honored to retire my flag. There is a dignity and respect, not only in the ceremony, but in the way these men and young men conduct themselves in the world. We need more of that today.

As I left Holy Redeemer and drove back down the hill, I thought about redemption. That despite our differences of opinion, we redeem what that flag stands for not only when we retire her, but while she flies over us all.

PATRICK CANEDAY salutes the BSA on its 100 very proud years! He may be reached on Facebook, at http://www.patrickcaneday.com and patrickcaneday@gmail.com.

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