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Musing: Flag on the Play
Way back in 1981, I spent my summer as a highly unqualified handicraft instructor at a Boy Scout camp, but my story this week isn’t about how someone who knew nothing about basketry, leatherwork, metalwork, or wood carving landed such a job. Suffice it to say some patient Scoutmasters taught me enough to bluff my way through the classes. Mostly. Eleven-year-olds are amazingly adept at spotting someone faking expertise.
Instead, I want to highlight how I learned to properly fold an American flag, an appropriate topic since Wednesday is Flag Day. On June 14, 1777, the Second Continental Congress passed the Flag Resolution which stated: “Resolved, That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”
Meeting E.Y. Cobb
Before I can explain what happened, I need to explain the who—E.Y. Cobb. He was a legend to the Boy Scouts in my area, a mentor to many young men.
I knew who he was, but had never worked closely with him until one spring Saturday a few weeks before the opening of summer camp. Most of us on the camp staff were in our late teens. A few in their early 20s.
And then there was E.Y. I honestly don’t know his age in the summer of 1981. It would have been impolite to ask. Let’s just say the four of us assigned to work with him that day didn’t have as many years on this earth combined as he did. So naturally, in the arrogance of youth, we thought of him as an old man. Forgive me my stupidity.
Our task that day was simple enough. For the opening and closing ceremonies each week, the couple hundred scouts in attendance gathered in a campfire circle for songs, skits, and presentations. We needed to clear the brush, repair benches, and otherwise prepare the area.
We gathered our tools and marched to our destination. We attacked our task with the furor of youth. E.Y., meanwhile, set about with a slow and steady pace.
An hour into the morning, our bodies were drenched with sweat and we declared a break. We piled onto the grass under a shade tree and guzzled water. E.Y., however, kept working.
We asked if he was going to take a break with us. “Not tired,” was his entire response. We looked at each other, stood, and went back to work. Less speed, but still pouring our energy into the project.
Mid-morning arrived. We paused again for a break. E.Y. kept working. Within minutes, we were back at it.
Come eleven o’clock and we all looked at him, but he showed no signs of wearing out. We had no choice but to continue our efforts.
Finally, at lunch, he stopped. Long enough to eat. And then he stood, picked up his tools, and plunged right back to work while our sandwiches were only half-eaten.
When we finally finished late that evening—exhausted and starving—the campfire ring was ready to welcome the first wave of campers to the opening campfire. And I had developed a deep respect for E.Y.
The Flag Ceremony
Once the camping season began, we busied ourselves with the routines of summer. I spent my days pretending to know what I was doing in the handicraft lodge. I saw E.Y. only during meals and flag ceremonies.
We had three flag poles in front of the mess hall. The American flag graced the taller, center pole, flanked by the state and camp flags. Each morning before breakfast, everyone gathered for the raising of the flags. Each evening before dinner, we gathered again to lower the flags.
The ceremony was simple enough. A commandeer called everyone to attention as they lined either side of the parade field, then directed the color guard. A cannoneer fired a loud round. A bugler played the appropriate music. A team of six smartly marched toward the poles, raised or lowered the flags, and returned.
Well, we were supposed to perform our task “smartly.” The first two ceremonies of every week were conducted by the staff and were to set an example for the boys attending camp that week. From that point forward, different troops volunteered for the honor (except for the commandeer, bugler, and cannoneer roles which were always done by staff).
One particular Sunday evening, we weren’t exactly tight in our execution. The American flag, in particular, wasn’t treated with the respect it deserved. The folding more closely resembled what happens when I try to fold a fitted sheet. And, yes, I was one of the two staff members handling—or, I should say, mishandling—the American flag.
Later, we were eating supper in the mess hall when E.Y. tapped me on the shoulder. He invited me to join him on the parade ground after the meal. When I arrived, I discovered he had assembled the entire team. In his usual quiet but firm way, he expressed his disappointment. And then he suggested we practice.
By suggested, he meant don’t even think about leaving until you get it right.
Scouts were filing out of the mess hall to return to their campsites for the evening. Many of them paused to watch the sight as we lined up, marched to the poles, raised the flags, and returned. Then we marched to the poles, lowered and folded the flags, and returned.
He walked over to me, asked for the American flag, inspected it, and tsked. That quiet sound expressed a deep disappointment. I never wanted to hear it again.
He and I unfolded the flag. He showed us step by step how to do it properly. Tight lines. Firm folds. Perfect alignment. Then he suggested we try the entire ceremony again.
We lined up, marched to the poles, raised the flag, returned. Lined up, marched to the poles, lowered and folded the flags, returned. He inspected. Quietly corrected. Suggested we try again.
We did. And again. And again.
I don’t remember exactly how many times. In my mind, it was a hundred. In reality, it was probably less than a dozen. But the repetition made his point.
The next morning, I arrived early on the parade ground. So had every other member of the flag team. E.Y. hadn’t suggested it. None of us had discussed it. But we all wanted to get it right. We practiced in the morning mist before any Scouts appeared on the field.
When the time came, we executed a near perfect ceremony raising the flag. When we were done and the Scouts moved to the mess hall for breakfast, E.Y. walked over to us. We held our breaths and waited. “Good job,” he said.
Those two words meant the world to us. It was as meaningful, if not more so, as that disappointed tsk from the night before.
After that, I asked him a few times to inspect my folding after a ceremony. Sometimes he offered a minor correction. Sometimes he nodded and said, “Good job.”
Over the years, I looked forward to being assigned to his work crew. I knew we would work hard, but we did things right. And that mattered. I sought him out for advice or counsel. I became one of the many who looked up to him and valued what he taught us.
And respect for the flag centers that. If you come across me when I see the flag being raised or lowered, or carried past me in a parade, understand that my standing still with my hand over my heart comes with a deep respect for the flag. And for the man who taught me how to treat it properly.
Happy Flag Day.
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Until Next Monday
If you live in the U.S., take a moment on Wednesday to think of the flag. If you live elsewhere, do the same in your country. I’ve been blessed to visit many wonderful countries, so understand your pride as well.
If you have questions or thoughts, drop them in the comments below.
See you next Monday.
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