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A Symbol Defined -- Cagle

November 2001
Often times during my youth, I would not question things I didn't understand in order to spare myself the indignity of exposing my own ignorance. Ah, if only the Internet were around back then.

The truth is, certain things just didn't make sense to me. Take the coconut head that hung on the wall in my childhood home.

At least it looked like a coconut. It was decorated to resemble an indian, complete with colorful feathers and painted facial markings. It hung in an upper corner of our kitchen, generally cloaked by our c1910 refrigerator.

Perhaps my mom discovered it at a yard sale and couldn't resist. Maybe it was a gift from her mother-in-law, a full-blooded Cherokee.

It didn't particularly match the theme in our kitchen, and it wasn't the subject of conversation, primarily because it was displayed in such a manner as to not attract attention. Mission accomplished; I don't recall ever asking her why it existed in our home, as it blended in with the paneling and receded into an obscured corner of my mind. Mom passed away three years ago, taking the head's secret with her.

For the longest time, my feelings about the United States flag were not unlike those I felt for the coconut head. Obviously, the flag had a somewhat more lengthy and glorious past than the head. The coconut head didn't get raised at Iwo Jima. No one ever saluted the head or put their hand over their heart and pledged allegiance to the head. Reverential treatment was never bestowed upon it.

Growing up I, along with my fellow grade school students, had a good enough understanding of the flag's significance and an appropriate level of respect for its symbolism. Even if I didn't completely appreciate its significance, the fact that Americans had fought and died for our country while holding the flag high was good enough for me. However, had someone asked me, back then, if I loved the American flag, the response would have been the predictable child-like shrug of puzzlement, followed by the stock answer, "Uh, I dunno. I guess so."

Somehow, for me, the flag essentially hung there, like the coconut head. It was largely unremarkable and too, in time, blended in with its surroundings. I didn't harbor disrespectful feelings for really just left me feeling indifferent.

As I grew older my attitude toward the flag remained unchanged. I saw Team U.S.A. goalie Jim Craig drape himself with it during the 1980 Olympics. I watched as it was dramatically folded and handed to widows of those who have served our country's armed forces. I watched natives of other lands burn and otherwise destroy the flag, but all I could muster was, "Whoa, what's their problem?"

I was against flag burning, again, out of deference to those in our military who had died in defense of the country. I valued my freedoms and still do, particularly the one that allows for freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Even when (no, especially when) I'm coming off half-cocked. The flag held greater meaning for those people laying it all on the line for all of us. I could respect that, even if tears didn't well in my eyes during the playing of "God Bless America" against the backdrop of a waving red, white and blue cloth with stars and stripes. After all, it's only a symbol, right?

Yes, it is only a symbol.

Beginning September 11, 2001, that symbol began to mean a whole lot more to me.

Wait now, don't cue up that insipid country music song, "Proud to be an American." Sappy sentimentality is not my bag here. But I can honestly say, without a doubt, that following the sucker punch attacks on New York City's World Trade Center and the Pentagon, that I love the U.S. flag.

Once the United States was attacked, we reached for our shield, our badge of pride. It hangs from the front porch of virtually every home on my street, and it can be assumed that is par for the course around the country. Given the staggering amount of flags that have been snatched off the shelves of stores across the nation, it seems I am not the only schlub who needed to be reintroduced to Old Glory.

New Meaning
Is it sad that it took this act of war to make us reach for our flag? Is it unfortunate that it took images of massive death and destruction to trigger not only the emotional realization, but the intellectual conclusion that the flag represents all Americans, in good times and, particularly, bad? These questions are moot, for here we are, waving our U.S. flags, demanding that our freedoms not be compromised, and banding together to once again show why our patch of real estate is the most desirable in the world.

Good for us.

I offer no suggestions for military response. No political posturing, no social commentary, no "us versus them" battle cry. At this point, I don't even know what the response should be and probably never will. Many of us are blinded by pain and rage, all the while resisting the urge to take a swing in anger.

The only thing we do know is that we have each other, and we have this thing here. It's yours, you can keep it. The flag has always been ours. Until now, not all of us appreciated it. That has changed.

Sorry, I don't know what happened to the coconut head.

-- By Erik Cagle


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