Old Glory

From my column “The Village Smith”, which appeared
in a newspaper in North Charleston, SC     (Linda Smith)

* * *

I once interviewed a veteran who spent much of World War II on a remote and lonely base in Greenland, but who was later shipped out to the fighting front where he was seriously wounded.

“Which was worse,” I asked him, “the loneliness or the fighting?”

“When you’ve been shot at,” he replied, “you know you’re at war.”

At a football game back in south Georgia one Friday evening, the crowd stood at attention for the National Anthem. Teens ran about helter skelter, screeching and laughing, oblivious of this hallowed moment. To my horror, my own son, then age 14, was making his way down the aisle toward me. I was with some friends, Tildun and his wife, Pat. Tildun, a very large, imposing man, was the assistant principal at the high school. As my son drew even with him, Tildun’s arm dropped like an iron bar across his path. Still at attention, his eyes never wavering from the flag, Tildun’s arm stayed steady as a rock, blocking any forward movement. I knew, as my son did not, that Tildun was seeing much more than a red, white, and blue flag snapping smartly in the night breeze. He was seeing his brother’s name etched on a black marble memorial in Washington, D.C.

There’s a clipping in my family album showing a head and shoulders shot of a young soldier with an earnest face. His name was Thomas Duncan. Whenever I look at it, I think of another news clipping of Thomas’s parents receiving posthumous medals in his name. The remorseless camera had captured their stricken eyes and listless stance. More grief was bared on that front page than I could stand to see. The clipping I have of Thomas is his obituary.

Thomas was serving his term in Vietnam when he was wounded and taken to a field hospital. When the hospital was surrounded and attacked by the Viet Cong, the wounded rose to fight — and died. Thomas had just turned 21.

In Charleston, SC, there is a certain overpass. From one direction, just as the wheels of your car touch the overpass, you see a huge flag emerge like a star-spangled dawn above the horizon. On a windy night, lit up against the darkness, Old Glory shines there like a new constellation. I always found myself leaning forward, watching for it, anticipating it. And somewhere in the mist that would cover my eyes would be a vision of black marble, and news clippings, and earnest young faces.

Our flag is sacred. Our soldiers are heroes.

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