What the flag asks of us
Catching the Star Spangled Banner as it falls
By Rick Holmes
June 29, 2018
Baltimore -- At Fort McHenry, the Star Spangled Banner yet waves.
An especially large American flag has always flown over this star-shaped stone fortress at the mouth of Baltimore Harbor. Its size made it easier for Francis Scott Key to see it flying amid the rockets’ red glare and the bombs bursting in air as the British laid siege to the fort in September 1814. Key, an American held on a British ship moored in the harbor, watched the battle all night, and at dawn’s early light, he rejoiced to see that huge flag still flew.
Fort McHenry had held and Baltimore had been saved from British invasion. Key sat down and wrote the poem that became the national anthem.
From the ramparts I watched, 200 years later, as the sun sank to the western horizon. Behind me, that huge flag positively glowed.
A park ranger interrupted my reverie, calling down to me from a parapet above. “Can you help me take down the flag?”
“Of course,” I said, thinking it’s probably a two-person job.
But as ranger Taylor Minik lowered the flag, I saw that it is much bigger than I thought – 30 feet by 42 feet - and so is the job of guiding it safely to the ground.
Late on that brisk November weekday, Fort McHenry, now run by the National Parks Service, wasn’t crowded. Minik had rounded up just about every visitor to help with the flag-lowering ceremony. He explained that he’d be up on a platform working the ropes. The wind can whip the flag unpredictably as it is lowered, he said, and our job was to catch it as it came down, making sure no part of it touched the ground.
Today, enormous flags mostly fly over car dealerships, intended to draw attention to their businesses without violating local sign bylaws. They leave them up all night because it’s too much trouble to take them down properly.
Today, the star-spangled banner, like other politicized flags – rainbow flags, “Don’t Tread on Me” tea party flags, POW flags and the like – has become a fashion accessory, emblazoned on T-shirts, bathing suits and beach blankets.
Today, not for the first time, we have politicians and commentators who act as if Old Glory belongs to them and those who agree with them, who turn the flag into a political weapon to divide Americans. The “Star-Spangled Banner” has been turned into a political football at, of all places, professional football games.
Some NFL players have been taking a respectful knee during the national anthem to make a point about the nation’s unfilled promise of “liberty and justice for all.” The NFL players are not protesting the flag, the anthem or the NFL, and their protest certainly has nothing to do with the military, as only the willfully ignorant contend. At every opportunity, the players have explained, in the most civil terms, that they are protesting policy brutality, mass incarceration and racial injustice in the criminal justice system. They are intended to spark a debate over general principles and specific policy recommendations, and to some extent they have succeeded.
At Fort McHenry, we didn’t stand or kneel as the giant flag, a replica of the 15-star, 15-stripe banner that flew over the fort in 1814, slowly descended. We moved this way and that, positioning ourselves to break its fall. We caught it and held it tight.
Then, under Minik’s instruction, we stretched out the flag and folded it with great care, using the procedure reserved for the American flag, the one I learned back in Boy Scouts: Folding it horizontally two times, then in a triangle, working from the stripes end to the stars.
It took more than a dozen of us to do the job: young and old, men and women, black and white and brown. Some were recent immigrants, some descended from Americans alive when Fort McHenry turned back the British navy. We worked together, pulling the fabric taut, lining up the seams, holding the flag high so no dirt could stain it, treating the symbol of our nation with reverence and respect.
The flag doesn’t ask us to stand silent and obey. It asks us to catch it when it’s falling.
It asks that we fight for our country and its values, and that we work to keep its promise of one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. It asks that we hold it high and protect it from the stains of hatred, partisanship and cynicism.
Sometimes that means putting on a uniform and putting your life on the line. Sometimes it means taking a respectful knee when others are standing. We honor the flag by respecting all Americans’ right to decide what it asks of them.