Bored white corpuscles, the wife and I alternately crept and cruised the clogged arteries of Empire on our way to some godforsaken suburb to visit reactionary relatives in the rain.
We passed depressing god awful towns. Same supermarkets, drugstores, fast-food, Starbucks, Gap, Barnes and Noble what-have-you (just like NYC!). Hundreds upon hundreds of flags in every neighborhood, lining every Main Street and pocking every block. You could tell the truly lower and working class neighborhoods cause the flags had yellow ribbons on them, which meant the kids were off from school that day, out fighting for–what else?–The Flag.
On the highway we played “count-the-flag:” Old Glory waved from both domestic and imported cars. Soggy cloth and nylon flapped like rat-tails in the rain.
And of course, the bumper stickers and decals: “Proud To Be American United We Stand Remember 9/11 and The Alamo Valley of Heroes No Smoking Please Sit Down Chew Your Food Forty Times Don’t Interrupt Me When I’m Speaking…”
“Why you wanna wear Daddy’s clothes?” I screamed out the window at everyone, at no one. “Look at you dressing in THE MAN’S clothes pretending you’re Big Daddy!”
We pulled into a Shop-Rite parking lot in one of the wealthier towns–no yellow ribbons on the flags–and parked beside this shiny Jeep-type vehicle, looked like a Brink’s truck. But my wife said it was an SUV.
“Americans gotta find some way to blow gas,” she said. “Twenty-five years ago it was the Cadillac. Today it’s the SUV — hey, look at that, that’s illegal!”
“What, the big ugly gas guzzler or the ‘United We Stand’ bumper sticker on its fender?”
“No, no, the flag in the rain,” she said.
“We’ve seen about two thousand–”
“But look at the shape it’s in,” she said. “It’s a mess.”
Soaked and tattered; faded and fringed. I wouldn’t wipe my ass with the rag on that SUV.
“Oh yeah. I remember. Something about not letting Old Glory hit the ground or get spit on and stuff.”
Years ago, in the Age of the Cadillac, the Cub Scouts taught me the only proper way to dispose of a flag was to fold it neatly and burn it, yet here this guy had this REDWHITEandBLUE shmateh rotting away on his big brassy truck or sports van or whatever the salesmen told him it was supposed to be.
My wife ran in to pick up a cake for our hosts. I wasn’t alone more than a few minutes before Flagman walks up to the SUV, keys in hand, and damned if he’s not wearing a stars-and-stripes cardigan. Now, why was Abbie Hoffman considered a yippee yappy yahoo radical for wearing a hand-made flag-shirt while this guy’s considered…uh…”normal,” in a super-patriotic way, for sporting an off-the-rack Betsy Ross cardigan?
“Hey man, that’s illegal,” I said.
“Excuse me?” said Flagman, obviously anxious to get outta the rain lest he shrink his sweater.
“You’re mistreating that flag. Abusing it, in fact. It’s illegal.”
“Sure,” I said. “Can’t let Old Glory fade out like an old hippy bandana. I mean, I’m not gonna report you, but…”
“Report me? To who?”
“You know. TIPS. The flag codicil of the USA PATRIOT act. Don’t tell me you don’t know?”
“Anyway, ignorance of the law is no excuse…”
“Flag,” he said, as if appealing to some star-spangled deity.
“Again, I’m not the type to squeal on a guy who’s basically, I mean who appears to be patriotic, but some folks don’t take kindly to flag abuse. Also, there’s the type who’ll do anything for money…”
“Yeah. The TIPS people pay about fifty dollars for confirmed reports of abuse. All someone has to do is call the HOTLINE and…”
“Whoa. I don’t want trouble. Look, man, I’ll get rid of it as soon as I get home.”
“What do you mean, ‘get rid of it?’ You can’t just throw away Old Glory like a piece of cloth. You have to burn it.”
“Burn it? Ain’t that illegal?”
“Yeah. Go figure. But it’s also the only legal way to dispose of it. You can look it up if you don’t believe me. One of those Catch-22 deals.”
“No, it’s just that…look at it. It’s soaked.”
“Yeah. That’s a problem with keeping a flag in the rain. Well, it’s against regulations, probably, though I’m not sure, but you may want to blow dry it first, then fold it neatly and light her up.”
“Jesus Christ. Okay, man. Thanks. I gotta go.”
And with a chugga chugga zoom and toxic fumes, the flag burner sped off.
ADAM ENGEL was thrown out of the Cub Scouts for flag-burning, though he swears he was performing a mercy burning on a tattered remnant of Old Glory and not desecrating a virile, vigorous banner in its patriotic prime. Anyone up for a game of “count-the-flag” can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org