Mending Every Flaw

June 15, 2007

Oh beautiful, for pilgrims’ feet
Whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America! God mend thine every flaw;
Confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law!
                           — Katherine Lee Bates, 1859-1929
                               American educator and traveler

The Heidelberg Heritage Society is one of those civic organizations staffed by energetic volunteers that help give small town America such a sweet flavor. With headquarters in an 18th century building that was once a tavern, its mission is to preserve and present the history of Wernersville, Pennsylvania and the surrounding townships. I’m a lifetime member, having ponied up $200, the equivalent of ten years’ dues, at least twenty years ago. Though I live sixty miles from Wernersville and participate only sporadically in society events, I have gotten my money’s worth many times over in the acquaintances I’ve developed and the help I’ve been given in my 19th century Berks County research.

One event that draws spectators and participants who might have no other interest in the organization and its aims is the annual flag retirement ceremony. You don’t have to find out each year’s date. It’s always on Flag Day, June 14. And you don’t need a ticket. You just show up at the Lerch Tavern sometime after supper with a lawn chair or a blanket, a ball or a Frisbee for the kids if they get bored, and, if you have one, a tattered, faded, or torn American flag. The Boy Scouts will be building a fire, and you can place your flag, folded properly if you can manage it, on the table beside the barbecue pit. There’ll be a tent to shelter the speakers and the orchestra of a nearby Lutheran congregation that performs every year. The proceedings will be interrupted at least once by a Norfolk Southern or Conrail freight train humming along the tracks at the south border of the Lerch Tavern property, giving the traditional signal of two long whistles followed by a short and then another long as it approaches the crossings at the Wertz Mill and at Church Road.

It’s been twenty-five years since I first walked about at Hain’s Cemetery in Wernersville and formed the idea for a novel about domestic life among the Pennsylvania Germans of Berks County. I go through periods of being intensely interested in the idea and productive on the novel, followed by longer periods in which the work lies fallow. I’m coming out of such a fallow period now, and my two recent sojourns at the Jesuit Center have made me long for reconnection with this part of my writing life.

Last night was a good night for the flag retirement ceremony — not too hot, the lawn cool but dry. I arrived just as the colors were being carried in. I stood on the sidewalk along Elm Street as the orchestra played a marching tune, and then found a spot under a tree. I was surrounded by people who are the salt of this earth — young families with kids in strollers and dogs on leashes, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and their leaders, retired folk, veterans wearing service pins. As people arrived some of them took folded flags over to the table.

Each year one flag is retired ceremonially and the others are taken care of after the assembled spectators have gone into the tavern for refreshments. It is traditional to cut the blue field of stars away from the stripes and then to cut the stripes apart, thus rendering the item into pieces of fabric and no longer a flag. Each piece is then put into the fire and allowed to burn completely. The ashes are then scattered or buried.

This year the flag chosen for ceremonial retirement was presented by a representative of the Patriotic Order of the Sons of America. He had been contacted by a Canadian citizen who bought at auction a box of military memorabilia that had been carried out of Afghanistan. Among the spent ordnance and camouflage clothing and service patches was an American flag. Its edges were scorched, and there was writing in Arabic scrawled across the stripes. Thus it appeared to be not just a worn flag no longer suitable for display, but a desecrated one. The Canadian wanted to place it in the hands of some person or organization that would know how best to dispose of it.

I came of age during the Vietnam war era. I was anti-war and anti-draft, the kind of person generally described as a peacenik, a bleeding heart liberal, even a nattering nabob of negativism and an effete, impudent snob. Along with most of my friends, I was definitely on the receiving end of the slogan “America, Love It or Leave It.” But I never wore a flag patch on the seat of my pants and I never used alternative or rude words to the Pledge of Allegiance (“with liberty and justice for some” is the mildest phrase I remember). And I complied without grumbling about my free speech rights when a principal in my first year of teaching directed me to remove from my bulletin board a poster of a slumscape with the words “thine alabaster cities gleam undimmed by human tears” (from the little-known fourth stanza of America the Beautiful) because he said it was “inflammatory.”

These are tough times politically and emotionally for many Americans, especially those of us who know and love a lot of twenty-somethings. I am more keenly aware now than I was in the early 1970s of the horrors of war and the terrible sacrifices made by soldiers and their families, even by those who come home apparently unscathed. Last night I stood among people of all ages and ideologies, among youngsters who were come-alongs to an event they had little interest in or understanding of, among veterans who might know precisely what it was that was being observed, among people who might have just been looking for a pleasant evening’s interlude followed by lemonade and cookies.

It’s the pomp and circumstance of such an event as the Heidelberg flag retirement ceremony that helps bring us together, at least for a moment, in the hope of mending every flaw.

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