Wave to our Flag
Summer and patriotism sure seem to go hand and hand. During these three months, storefronts and businesses display beautiful patterns of red, white and blue, tri-color bunting adorns the eaves of front porches, advertisers weave these colors between their messages and cemeteries are lined with patriotic bouquets and ribbons. Two patriotic holidays serve as bookends around the summer months, beginning with Armed Forces Day in Mid-May, and ending with Patriot Day on Sept. 11, and one special tradition is tucked neatly between the two lauded celebrations of Memorial Day and Independence Day — Flag Day. Although this observance does not elicit the same hype as our other summer holidays, or a day off from work, it is still important to pause and draw attention to its significance to our culture. We all love and respect the flag, and some have even defended Old Glory serving in the military. Throughout the month of June, our flag, a common backdrop in many political, social and civic events, finally moves to the forefront of thoughts and conversations.
Our forefathers decided on the three continental colors and design to distinguish themselves from British oppressors and to symbolize the dissidence from the “taxation without representation” they sought. On June 14, 1777, the Second Continental Congress passed a resolution stating, “Resolved, that the Flag of the thirteen United States shall be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the Union be thirteen stars, white on a blue field, representing a new constellation.” What foresight they had in selecting a design to represent both independence and unity.
While this new constellation of United States continued to expand its borders to the north, south and west, the 13 original stars steadily grew to 48, and finally 50, over the next two hundred years. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson would mark the anniversary of our forefathers’ decree and officially declare June 14 as Flag Day to be observed with patriotic tributes. Today, Americans celebrate this day by proudly displaying flags in their homes and businesses to commemorate our freedom and acknowledge those who fought to keep our colors “gallantly streaming.” Some communities host celebrations and ceremonies to mark its importance and pledge their allegiance to the grand old flag.
Americans rightfully take a lot of pride in our pledge, our high-flying flag and “the Republic for which it stands,” but few of us take the time to stop and reflect what the beautiful arrangement of red, white and blue really means to us as individuals. We throw words like “freedom,” “patriot” and “proud American” around like Frisbees, but how often do we truly reflect on what these terms mean in our everyday lives?
When I reflect on the true meaning of Flag Day, four distinctive memories come to mind. The first one happened 52 years ago when I was a young teenager watching Neil Armstrong plant our flag on the moon’s surface during Apollo 11’s historic voyage in 1969. Not only did that mission show the strength and might of our union, it proclaimed to the world that anything is possible, even the seemingly impossible, like landing on the moon. As the citizens of our nation swelled with pride over that magnificent accomplishment, I was moved and motivated to serve our flag and our country in a way that I had never felt before.
Those patriotic sentiments would resurface four years later when I enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1973, raised my right hand, faced the flag and recited this familiar oath: “I, William White, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same…So help me God.” This was two years before U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War would officially come to an end, and I swore, not only to my fellow soldiers and countrymen, but also to myself, that I would put my American pride into action and these words into service. The raising of the flag every morning and its lowering in the evening brought home the significance of what we were doing. It also made me realize that serving my country wasn’t what I do; it is who I am, an epiphany and theme that would often reoccur in my lifetime.
My third, and possibly most vivid recollection of regard for our stars and stripes happened after Sept. 11, 2001. Weary, soot-covered first responders, who had sorted through mountains of debris and dead bodies for three days, stood atop a mound of rubble at “Ground Zero” and proudly raised the American flag over the wreckage and remnants of the World Trade Center. The only certainties our country had in those early days were “when” and “where” the attacks happened. It would be several more weeks before we fully understood the “who,” “what” and “why” of those tragic events, but that small, flag-raising gesture proved to be the shot in the arm of inspiration that we all needed, and it replaced the fear of the unknown with the solidarity of resolve for all Americans.
The final highlight of my flag-related pride happened in January of 2019 in the Senate Chamber. A chill came over me from the overwhelming sense of responsibility and honor I felt as I took the oath to serve as your state senator. Standing with my colleagues and agreeing to uphold the Missouri Constitution ranks as one of the proudest, yet most humbling moments of my life. The sheer gravity of the experience still keeps me grounded and motivated today.
So, on this year’s Flag Day, I challenge you to take a moment to reflect on these questions. What do the stars and stripes really mean to you? Why should the star-spangled banner be celebrated? How does seeing the flag invoke your sense of patriotism? How can you figuratively wave to the banner as it waves o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
The next time you attend a parade and witness young children lining the streets and enthusiastically waving small flags, please think about those who carried a tattered, battle-torn flag toward victory. Consider the countless widows who received a tightly, perfectly folded red, white and blue emblem of their spouse’s sacrifices to our nation. Remember how inspired and proud you felt watching a Color Guard march in step and raise the flag with distinction. Appreciate how blessed and fortunate we are, just by birthright, to have this grand symbol of freedom waving over our precious homeland.
This column was published in the Joplin Globe’s Better Living publication on June 4, 2021.