Paris, Friday, July 6, 2007

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Remembering Old Glory
by Judith Gayle | Political Waves

I HAD an idyllic childhood in many respects. Arriving in the middle of the last century, I was an only child born to young parents who both worked toward their piece of the American dream, and tended by great-grandparents who flavored my reality with hints of the century prior. The war was over, the GI Bill was bringing a new sense of prosperity to the nation, and times were good. It's no wonder that the Fourth of July was a big deal in my multi-generational world. Let me take you on a tour of the Fifties, through a child's eyes.

It was always hot by then, or as hot as it got in the San Francisco Bay area in July -- the sidewalk under my bare feet made getting anywhere a trot, not a stroll. I was usually shooed out of the grandparents' home, along with my cousin Allen, older by two years, so as to not be underfoot. We were armed with cowboy hats and cap guns, a fistful of cookies shot through with cinnamon, and active imaginations -- plenty to keep us occupied until it was time to take our positions for the annual Fourth of July parade, forming in the business district, only a long block away.

By early summer the air was thickly scented by Pop's flowers -- stalks, geraniums, roses, pansies, snapdragons -- and from the plot along the side of the garage, the slightly acrid and potent smell of tomatoes, ready to pick. In the grape arbor, lushly dressed with massive green leaves, ropes of fat purple Concords hung like bats in a cave, destined to become jelly in the cooler months. The hydrangea bush dwarfed me, its huge blooms both pink and blue, and provided fine cover in a game of cowboys (those were the Hopalong Cassidy/Roy Rogers days and, in the American tradition, justice wore a six-shooter), as did the rain barrel by the garage door (the far side of the house where the chicory for my great-grandma's coffee grew), and the carefully tended string of shrubs that dotted the front of the big corner lot where the family elders lived. The only enemies we knew in those innocent years, besides the imaginary guys in the "black hats," were the huge translucent spiders that spun their webs in the arbor and the yellow jackets that chased us when we disturbed their territory. Oh, and occasionally Skipper, Pop's cranky old half-blind cocker spaniel, who we avoided as best we could.

Uncle Joe, actually a great-great uncle, and Aunt Maggie would drive down from Mendocino, on California's Northern coast, bringing a whole smoked salmon to rest on the kitchen table, covered with a tea towel and ready to be picked at, a massive hors d'oeuvre. Pop would take his brother and my dad, any other male guests, out to the garage to partake in a celebratory shot of Red Eye (properly hidden in a secret place above his work bench) while the ladies did the endless kitchen chores that resulted in a family feast of fried chicken, potato salad, relish plates and desserts -- not counting the fat watermelon resting in the cooler, a small cabinet lined with metal and vented to the outdoors with permanent slats. Worn out by play and midday heat, Allen and I would lounge on the porch swing, awaiting the signal to pile into the car and drive the block to a friend's parking lot facing the main thoroughfare. While most folks had to find a spot on the sidewalk, my cousin and I would enjoy the parade sitting on the hood of Pop's big green Dodge. (And I thought the sidewalk was hot!)

I'll be frank -- I don't remember much about the parades. I recall lots of vets marching in precision, proud in their uniforms...more than we see now. There were bands, modest floats, pretty girls in open cars. Cowgirl that I fancied myself, I was mostly impressed with the horses, splendid in their tack and ridden by costumed caballeros. But what I remember most was the flags. They were everywhere...big ones, little ones...hung in store windows, flying from every parade entry, and tiny ones on gilded sticks clutched in everyone's hand -- certainly in mine. Patriotism is a grand and glorious feeling, almost as heady as the anticipation of Southern fried chicken, icy watermelon and the dangerous noise of a firecracker thrown on a hot July afternoon.

Patriotism and nationalism aren't the same thing, of course. It was years before I understood that, and by then any sense of the latter had faded in me. Don't get me wrong, I loved my country, then and now -- who wouldn't love this big, boisterous, diverse nation, held together by the promise of liberty and the guarantee of "justice for all?" I suppose I lost my innocence as a teen in the Vietnam years, when watching television news guaranteed you a view of napalm strikes and groups of hollow-eyed soldiers in dirty fatigues, faces you searched because so many you knew were serving. I was one of those who were put on notice by bumper stickers that read, America: Love It or Leave It. Absurd then, absurd now -- if you don't stay to fix it, you don't love it at all.

Yes, I was instructed early that America can be wrong -- history shows us that even those planning and promoting that war knew there wasn't a ghost of a chance to win it, no matter what the ultra-right would have us believe today. It was our first modern taste of "insurgency" (not counting the guerrilla warfare of the Native Americans who originally owned the continent) and it was a lesson we didn't learn from, evidently, given the current state of affairs in Iraq. Not too many years after that, an American president stepped down moments before a Bill of Impeachment was to be drawn, and I wasn't one of those who thought that to be a random problem with power. I'd seen what police did in Selma, what the National Guard did at Kent State, what Callie did at Mai Lai, what Ehrlichman and Haldeman did at the Watergate.

And yet -- even then -- I waved that little flag, and taught my own little ones to love it as did I. It represented more than just the moment; it stood for all that I believed to be true about the Republic, bright with hope and promise. If we hadn't honored it by our actions in those darker moments, it was just a matter of checks and balances, guaranteed by a Constitution that was bigger than the sum of its parts -- bigger than the fruited plains, the Rocky Mountains' majesty -- as big as an idea can get. A dear friend will be laying her grandfather to rest in Arlington this week -- she will be surrounded by flags. No easier, I suspect, to lay an old man down than a young one, when they hand you a folded American flag. Have we grown big enough now, wise enough, to know that we bury our current heroes in such a place while being aware that they were sent for geopolitical reasons that had little to do with patriotism, and everything to do with nationalism?

On 9/11, I put up the flag, not as did most of my neighbors in a wave of nationalistic fervor, but determined to keep it up until we had the truth of that attack. Out of respect, I retired it before the weather got bad -- 9/11 had already gone the way of the grassy knoll and Area 51, and before you take me to task as a conspiracy theorist, recent polls show that some 70 million of my fellow citizens believe the same conspiracies.

Today, on a hot, muggy Fourth in the Pea Patch, there are plenty of flags flying, but not mine. Like the Christian fish I used to have on my car, the flag has been radicalized to the point where I am no longer comfortable hoisting it. It stands for a nation gone closed-minded and thick-brained, a country confused to the point of belligerency by nationalist rhetoric and Utopian pipe dreams. The "liberty" we counted on has been subverted by agencies like the NSA with their warrantless wiretaps, and the "justice" we strove for was, just this week, proved a sham when our president bypassed the finding of a federal jury. The Department of Defense takes no responsibility for what happened at Abu Ghraib and judges argue, despite our government's displeasure, over whether we should allow prisoners at Guantanamo Bay the privilege of lawyers and trails. I have a hard time recognizing this republic. I will not goad my neighbors into a false sense of security or further nationalism by flying her flag, today.

But fly her I will, one day -- when the Constitution is restored, when the broken systems are redrawn, when the leadership is more dedicated to We, the People than Me, the Power Monger and Plutocrat. I will comfort myself, until then, with the notion that this nation is bigger than those who seek to rule her, who conquer in her name, who plunder her natural resources and victimize her people. Until then I will do my patriotic best to remind us all that God will only bless America as she extends her highest vision to her own citizens and her global neighbors. I'll remember those majikal days of my childhood, when I was proud of my country and sure in her virtue. I'll fly Old Glory on the day I see George W. Bush out of office -- meanwhile, I'll continue to pray for the day when heart trumps profit, patriotism replaces nationalism, and liberty and justice are restored to us all.

CREDITS: Managing Editor: Priya Kale. Webmaster: Anatoly Ryzhenko. Proofreader and Fact checker: Sara Churchville. Horoscope Editor: Jessica Keet.

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