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Whose Broad Stripes and Bright Stars

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I’ve enjoyed writing for many years. I'm dedicating more time to the craft in my retirement days.

The flag flies year 'round in my front yard

The flag flies year 'round in my front yard

If you don’t stand I might not understand, but I’ll nod in your direction and smile at you when I pass you on the street nevertheless. I believe we live in that kind of land, and you must, too. I’m ok with that. I really am. Be your own man, your own person. Do your own thing, by all means. That’s kind of what freedom means, after all. And I mean all of that with the very deepest of sincerity.

I remember days not long ago when famous, well-paid people for the first time took a knee to protest against a guy or an idea, and I could feel a strong tug in my heart all through that fateful day. But I spent 30 years serving—my dad did, too—so I was raised around respect for the flag and my reaction is the kind of normal thing that happens to people like me when you see stuff like that. And then you get past it, you remember that part of the reason you served was so that your fellow country women and men could live free and express themselves freely without having to keep constant eye in some metaphorical or actual rearview mirror.

The whole thing makes me think back to a time when I was a young kid living on an Air Force base in Montgomery, Alabama and one of the guys I was at the movie matinee with kept doing the cymbal sound at the end of every stanza in the national anthem. See, when you go to a movie on base, they play the national anthem before the show begins. When they do, everyone stands up, puts their right hand on their chest over their heart, remains still and quiet until the song is over. When you’re a young kid, you don’t really—and I mean really, really—know why you’re standing…but you do it anyway because it’s pretty much been ingrained in you. It’s the right thing to do, and you mostly do the right thing when you’re a kid. Mostly. So then, when your buddy is being just only slightly irreverent and making the clashing sound loud enough for others to hear…well, then it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when both of you got bopped with a baseball cap in the back of the head by the old man standing tall and proud behind you. His words don’t mean as much to you on that very day as they do 10 and 11 years later when your mom and dad are pinning gold bars on your shoulders and silver wings on your chest. But you straighten up and fly right just then, and you start to get it. You begin to understand.

The only regret I have about serving in the US Air Force for 30 years is that they wouldn't let me stay in longer

The only regret I have about serving in the US Air Force for 30 years is that they wouldn't let me stay in longer

Or maybe it’s not that precise moment, either. Maybe it’s like 15 or 20 years later when you visit a foreign land for the first time in uniform, when you see how a blind eye sometimes gets turned when wronging occurs that shouldn’t, when people defer to high-positioned leaders because the leaders are in positions of authority—deadly authority—and the people defer for no other reason…not because they respect the person in charge, but because they fear daily for their own existence, their survival, their right to keep in their mind—even if they can never express them—the ideas and ideals they long for so much. Life is so much more fun than death, after all, and in living you can at least dream about the tastes of the kinds of freedoms that you know are out there…somewhere. Like the ones those lucky Americans have, for just one example.

In those kinds of moments, you think to yourself: Man, how really lucky am I?

There are other moments that do it for you, too, like when you see the Wall fall, the deadly curtain of iron lifted. You go over to that very spot in Berlin some many years later, visit Checkpoint Charlie when your son is studying abroad in a country now long-reunited, but in many ways still reeling over a deadly decades-long division during a war that was anything but truly cold. When you stand there in front of the Wall’s few remnants, when you stand at the point where so many tried to steal across from east to west, from not free to free…and didn’t make it…when you’re standing there and suddenly a cold something runs through you on a warm autumn day…and you start to realize it must be the tortured souls of so many passing right through you, to remind you, to make sure you never forget. And then you cry, you can’t help yourself.

I mean, I did. And I couldn't.

I remember reading a book by Vonnegut where he describes the torturous, treacherous burning, and the relentless fire bombings of Dresden. It’s so awful, so vivid, so gut-wrenching that even now when you hear the word Dresden it’s sort of become a verb, an adverb or even an adjective, not just a proper noun titling the name of some German city. And there’s more…and it just rushes right through you in that moment. And your wife and your kid don’t feel it the same way, but they feel it through you, so they know it’s real and it’s heartfelt and it’s right there in that moment. And the other thing that’s there in that moment…gratitude. You are grateful…I mean, I guess I should say I am grateful…that I was born where and when I was born.

So when you see these different kinds of displays of dissatisfaction, when you hear about them, become aware through all the sensationalizing that goes on with every single slight of any kind these days…well, you don’t agree with the doers of the deed, nor the reporters of the incident, nor the trollers who troll for the sake of trolling, nor those who think their brand of freedom is the only brand of freedom, and if you don’t stand you don’t deserve these freedoms, nor those who’ve inspired such behavior in the first place…no, no, you don’t agree with those folks at all. Instead, in your mind, you raise your two hands together and do a little golf clap.

Yes, a golf clap. Applause for expressions of freedom that are allowed underneath the umbrella the flag provides.

Express. Be yourself, do the things you want to do, love to do, have to do. Don’t physically or dangerously impinge on others, mind you, but be who you want to be and say what you want to say. Say it in a way that gets your point across, that demonstrates your right to stand…or sit…or kneel…whatever it is you want to do. I’ll be there alongside. If not physically, then at least metaphorically, spiritually, something along those lines.

But make no mistake: When the anthem is played, when the colors are presented, I’ll be standing with my hand on my heart, some days even saluting if the desire strikes and conditions are right…

Like I said, I might not understand it when you do that thing you do, but I’ll still nod in your direction, maybe even wave and smile, probably say hi to you when I pass you on the street. It’s what I do. And when I do, you’ll maybe now have a better understanding about why I do it. I believe I understand what it means to live under that flag, and I know I know what it takes to make that flag a powerful umbrella for all. I also know that many, many others might not, might not care to ever know, either, and I’m ok with that. Because like I said, too, I believe we live in that kind of land where that kind of mindset is allowed, is tolerated, is part of the fabric. It is what it is and it can be allowed to be what it will be in this land: the land of the free and the home of the brave.

I rode exactly 17.76 miles on 4 July 2021 so I could get this really means that much to me.

I rode exactly 17.76 miles on 4 July 2021 so I could get this really means that much to me.

© 2021 greg cain