By C.J. KARAMARGIN
Citizen Staff Writer
Not all that long ago, one of the easiest ways to be considered unpatriotic and disrespectful was to wear an American flag.
The flag was not a garment, its vivid colors were not meant for shirts or boots. The flag was sacred. And woe to anyone who thought otherwise.
“Years ago, if anyone slighted the flag in any way, he’d be pounced upon,” said Mario Sivilli, a 77-year-old World War II veteran who collects flags. “People just wouldn’t tolerate it.”
How times have changed.
Today, as we celebrate 224 years of nationhood, it is commonplace to see the flag used in ways that might be considered offensive to someone of Sivilli’s generation. Wearing the flag has not only become standard practice, it is viewed as a sign of patriotism and respect. And it’s become a popular marketing tool, used to sell everything from designer clothes and cellular telephones to kitchen appliances.
When you come right down to it, the flag is really little more than a piece of cloth. Colorful, symmetrical and pleasing to the eye, it is easy to understand why it has become such a ubiquitous presence. But it is ultimately only cloth.
No mere piece of material, however, is fraught with quite the same historical significance and emotional weight as the American flag.
The Stars and Stripes. Old Glory. The Star-Spangled Banner. Call it what you will, the American flag is without question our most treasured, enduring visual symbol. “The flag embodies the entire spirit of our nation,” Sivilli said. “It is the symbol our unity and nationalism. It is the symbol of our national regard.”
Over the course of the 224 years of our national existence, the flag has come to represent that spirit, warts and all. It represents the best and the worst of a determined, diverse and occasionally dysfunctional country.
No amount of smoke from a backyard barbecue can obscure this fact.
The flag is freedom and opportunity. It is idealism and optimism. It is bravery and selfless sacrifice.
Think of George C. Scott playing Gen. George Patton. “Now I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country,” Patton tells us, standing steadfastly before a giant American flag. “He won it by making the other poor bastard die for his country.”
As objectionable as such bluster might be in an age of political correctness, the flag is guts and glory.
But the flag has also been wrapped around traits far less noble or admirable, traits some would prefer to forget and others might even deny: racism, intolerance, violence, commercialism.
Think of George Wallace being sworn in as the governor of Alabama in 1963. With flags waving, Wallace assumed the posture of a defiant patriot when he declared, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.”
As disturbing as such a stance may seem, it could prove what just might be one of the most durable characteristics of the flag: all Americans can find in it their own particular vision of America.
Liberals and conservatives alike claim the flag as their standard. So do businessmen and labor activists, blue-collar workers and intellectuals, Mayflower descendants and recent immigrants. No different are whites and blacks, Latinos and Asians, men and women, young and old.
Whose flag is it? Whose flag isn’t it?
“The flag represents what people want it to represent,” said Charles Smith, owner of the Tucson Map & Flag Center. “It represents the entire country, the ideals of a country, and the idea of a country.”
Again like America itself, the flag can be revered, and it can be reviled.
It is flown proudly in wartime. It is torched by angry war protesters.
It adorns the graves and monuments of our soldiers and heroes. It is used as a patch for the bottoms of frayed denim.
Some believe the flag needs special protection in the form of a constitutional amendment. Some believe the freedom the flag represents is the only protection it will ever need.
The nation has obviously changed much since the Continental Congress adopted the first official flag one year after the Declaration of Independence. And the design of the flag has changed with it. But the central place occupied by the flag has not. In a nation where change comes quickly and constantly, that is no small feat.
Here in Tucson, as in many communities, it is evident the flag not only survives, it thrives.
At the Tucson Map & Flag Center, Smith said he sells an average of about three American flags per day over a year. Most are the standard 3-by-5-foot variety, retailing for about $35. The busiest time of year is between Memorial Day and today.
“We’re actually seeing a slight increase in interest,” he said. “People are getting, if not more patriotic, more interested in our country and our flag. The baby boomer generation is aging and realizing the sacrifices of past generations.”
Examples of that interest can be found all over Tucson. Look, for example, at the Trails West Mobile Home Park on South Kolb Road. Or at the Suntree Village Apartments on North Oracle Road. Each place flies 20-by-30-foot flags that are among the largest in town. For each, the sail-sized flag – which can cost around $1,000 – has become indispensible.
“You can’t believe the phone calls and the complaints I get when we take it down,” said Ron Thunhorst, general manager of Trails West. “People say it’s a landmark.”
Suntree manager Gigi Williams has had a similar experience. She received more than 20 calls from passers-by concerned about the condition of a older flag flying from the apartment complex’s 80-foot flagpole.
“They were quite disturbed about it,” she said about the flag, which was recently replaced. “There was a lot of pride. It’s actually kind of cool.”
That pride has always been felt by Anne Schauer, a 79-year-old World War II veteran who grew up the daughter of immigrants in a house with seven brothers and sisters.
“Maybe because my parents were foreign-born, we were taught to appreciate what we had in this country and what this country means,” Schauer said. “The flag was part of that.”
Schauer’s reverence for the flag increased while she served in the Women’s Air Corps. In England from 1943 to 1945, Schauer got a firsthand glimpse of what the ideals represented by the flag meant to war-ravaged nation.
“It means a great deal to me,” she said. “It makes me feel like crying every time I see it. Honest, I have a lot of problems holding the tears back.”
Patriotism takes many forms. For Dennis Dwyer, it is literally something close to his heart.
Dwyer, a 51-year-old Vietnam War veteran, owns with his wife, Gina, the Ancient Art Tattoo shop on Alvernon Way. An American flag provides the background to a Bald Eagle Dwyer has tattooed across his chest.
“I certainly don’t think anyone’s going to burn it,” Dwyer said as he peeled off a T-shirt to show off his art work.
“People get a tattoo because it represents something important. There’s a significant reason or value to getting it,” he said. “I believe in God and country. I’m proud to be an American.”
Bryan Goldkuhl’s patriotism is evident to anyone who has seen him race his 1972 Chevrolet Nova at the Central Arizona Raceway in Eloy. The car is a flag on wheels.
“I’m a very patriotic person,” said Goldkuhl, owner of Auto Pros Garage. “This is my way of paying homage to the American flag.”
Sivilli, the flag collector, isn’t so sure that painting the flag on a race car is the best way to show respect for the flag. Indeed, he calls it “ridiculous and obnoxious.”
“I wouldn’t do it but I would defend his right to do it,” he said.
This line of argument is at the core of the ongoing debate over a constitutional amendment to protect the American flag. Supported by many lawmakers, including Arizona’s John McCain, the amendment vote in the Senate earlier this year was 63 in favor and 37 against.
The amendment, to ban desecration of the flag, needed 67 votes, however, to be sent to the states. Then, three-fourth of the states would have had to endorse the amendment before it could be added to the Constitution.
Sivilli, whose flag collection includes the first U.S. flag raised over Guadalcanal, said he is a supporter of the amendment because a single law that was part of the Constitution “would be a deterrent” to anyone who wanted to show disrespect to the American flag.
“People would think twice before they did anything to it,” he said.
And that, for Sivilli, is a key point. “People who show disrespect to the flag are more likely to cheat in business and do immoral and unlawful things,” he said. “And people like that aren’t likely to fly the flag on national holidays like the Fourth of July.”
As the nation celebrates the 4th of July, here are some tips on how – and how not – to display the American flag.
- The flag should be raised briskly and lowered slowly. Ordinarily, it should be displayed only from sunrise to sunset. If it is displayed at night it should be illuminated.
- When flown with other flags, such as a state flag, the United States flag should be in a position of honor. No other flag may be larger. No other flag should be placed above it.
- When displayed either horizontally or vertically against a wall, the union – or field of blue – should be uppermost and on the observer’s left.
- When displayed flat on a speaker’s platform, the flag should be above and behind the speaker.
- The flag should never be dipped to any person or thing. It is flown upside down only as a distress signal. Do not let the flag touch the ground or anything beneath it.
Like so much history, the story behind the Stars and Stripes is a blend of legend and fact.
- Legend credits Betsy Ross, a Philadelphia seamstress, with designing and creating the first American flag in the spring of 1776. Historians aren’t so sure. Francis Hopkinson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence from New Jersey, claimed to be the flag’s designer after the Revolutionary War.
- In an attempt to promote national pride and unity, the Continental Congress adopted a national flag on June 14, 1777. That flag had 13 red and white stripes and 13 white stars in a blue field, “representing a new constellation.”
- Although Congress did not say why it chose red, white and blue as the flag’s colors, it did provide an explanation when the Great Seal of the United States was adopted in 1782. Red symbolized hardiness and courage, white was for purity and innocence, and blue, for perseverance, vigilance and justice.
- The American flag was flown in battle for the first time on Aug. 16, 1777, at the Battle of Bennington on the New York-Vermont border. It was first saluted by another nation in a foreign port Feb. 14, 1778, when John Paul Jones sailed his ship, Ranger, to France.
- Francis Scott Key first called the flag the Star-Spangled Banner in 1814, when he wrote the poem that would become the national anthem. William Driver, a sea captain from Salem, Mass., coined the term “Old Glory” in 1824.
- According to custom, when the flag is folded it should end up in the shape of the tricornered hat worn by colonial soldiers.
- In 1818 a decision was made to add a new star to the flag for each new state added to the union. The stars representing Arizona and New Mexico, the last two states added to the continental United States, became part of the flag on July 4, 1912. Alaska and Hawaii became states in 1959, leading to the addition of the 49th and 50th stars.
- The arrangement of five rows of six stars alternating with four rows of five stars was the idea of an Ohio student, who designed it for a school project. The student received a B minus.
- The American flag has flown in numerous locations far from the country it symbolizes. Robert E. Perry planted it on the North Pole in 1909. Sixty years later, Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin planted it on the moon.
PHOTO CAPTION: FRANCISCO MEDINA/Tucson Citizen
Mario Sivilli, 77, who served in WWII and saw combat on the islands of Guadalcanal and Peleliu, looks at what he believes to be the first American flag flown on Guadalcanal, which he keeps as a souvenir.
Dennis Dwyer, 51, proudly displays his American flag with the eagle on his chest along with his painting titled “A Cry for Freedom” at his tattoo shop, Ancient Art Tattoo on Alvernon Way.
XAVIER GALLEGOS/Tucson Citizen
Mary Kysar and James White enjoy last night’s Sidewinders’ game while wearing these American flags and red, white and blue hats.