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The emotional power of a flag

U.S. Flag Day was in June, on the fourteenth. I’m a bit of an anarchist so I struggle with my relationship with flags. They hold such emotional power that they frighten me.

Flag stories intrigue me, however. I’ve been in Mexico and watched as that country’s flag is lowered in a town square, at the end of a day, with ceremony and reverence. I’m also familiar with the story of Mexico’s Los Niños Heroes, or The Boy Heroes, and I partly understand this reverence. Mexicans, like their neighbors to the north, are a patriotic people.

The Boy Heroes were military cadets at Mexico City’s Chapultepec Castle during the Mexican-American War. In September 1847, the brave boys held the castle for some days when it was under siege by the Americans. When it appeared the Americans were about to take the castle, one of the boys, a teenager named Juan Escutia, actually wrapped himself in the green, white, and red flag and jumped from the castle roof. Good grief! Ever since then Mexican girls have been wrapping themselves in green, white, and red skirts, blouses, and ribbons to honor that flag and, no doubt, attract a nice boy like Juan Escutia. You see why flags are frightening! Would you want your granddaughter to date a boy inclined toward jumping from castle walls? On the other hand, what boy could resist the charms of a pretty girl dressed in such lovely colors?

Coming home from Mexico my almost-anarchist heart always feels welcomed by a giant Old Glory flapping in the breeze over the customs house.

Speaking of Old Glory, do you know where that name came from? I love flag stories! It seems that there was a young sea captain from Salem, Mass., named William Driver. Sometime in the 1820s the young captain’s mom and her friends sewed a 10-foot high by 17-foot long flag for him. The huge flag had 24 stars and one anchor in its blue field in the upper lefthand quarter. Wikipedia says that Captain Driver first called the flag Old Glory in 1831 when he set out on a round-the-world whaling voyage.

When Driver moved to Nashville, Tenn., in the late 1830s he continued to call the flag Old Glory, and he hung it over the street from a rope during celebrations. Driver continued to add stars as the Union added states. By 1861 it had 34 stars. That was the year Tennessee seceded and the Civil War started. Captain Driver remained a Union supporter, and he hid his flag. When the Union Army took Nashville in 1862 Driver brought Old Glory out of hiding and flew it from the flagpole at the state Capitol. The 6th Ohio Infantry, which was in Nashville at the time, was charmed by the flag made by Captain Driver’s mom, and they adopted it. The national media picked up the story, and soon Old Glory was famous. The rest is history.

Speaking of history, I had the opportunity to see the Canadian flag during the first summer it flew over our northern neighbor. In February of 1965 the Canadians lowered the British Union Jack for the last time and raised their new red and white maple leaf flag. That summer a group of boys, including myself and our high school counselor, John Nemanich, paddled from Sucker Lake in the U.S. to Prairie Portage. We walked across that pleasant trail toward Basswood Lake in Ontario. On a wooded hill overlooking a small bay was Canadian customs and that striking flag flying on a pole taller than the pines. We got our visas and paddled out into the lake. I turned from the bow of the canoe to look back. There was the log cabin customs office, the tall pines, and the pretty flag of a foreign nation. I was 16, and the sky was blue and the sun was shining. It was wonderful.

The Union Jack, which the Canadians replaced with the maple leaf, is not the flag of England. The flag of England is a red cross on a white background and is known as St. George’s Cross. The Union Jack is the national flag of Great Britain, which includes England, Scotland and Ireland. It was created by a royal decree of King James in 1606 when the flags of those three countries were combined and their political union established. The British, in their peculiar way, have been arguing for some centuries about whether their symbol of the union is a flag or a jack. It doesn’t help that a flag on a British naval vessel is flown on a jack pole. British parliament has weighed in on whether it’s a jack or a flag a number of times, but I’m not certain that I understand the resolution.

There is, as I write, a discussion about Scotland breaking from Great Britain. That puts the future of the 400-year-old British flag in question.

Speaking of the Union Jack, pirates in past centuries used to fly it falsely. That is, they flew false colors. Your basic pirate was a cheat, thief, liar and murderer, and you would think he would appeal to someone with an anarchical tendency. He doesn’t; or at least those particular characteristics don’t.

A pirate ship might fly the Union Jack until it came close to a ship that was its intended victim. Then it might drop its false colors and raise the Jolly Roger. So, the jack went down, and the roger went up.

The Jolly Roger wasn’t the black and white flag with the skull and crossbones that you imagine. Pirates didn’t have a parliament where they politely debated what flag the Nation of Pirates should fly.  Being entrepreneurial fellows they all came up with their own motif based on death and thievery. Calico Jack flew a black roger with a white skull over crossed swords. Blackbeard flew a black jack with a white skeleton that had devil’s horns. The bony white devil held two symbols of death, an hourglass in its right hand and a lance in its left. The lance pierced a red heart that shed three crimson drops of blood. Some people in those days called the devil Old Roger. Eventually there may have been a Pirate Congress because everyone began calling these various blood-drenched jacks the Jolly Roger. One wonders who designed and sewed the various jolly rogers that brought cold fear to so many hearts.

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