Today is Flag Day

Today we begin cruising to show the flag on Tungting Lake and the Hunan Rivers.

I want all honors rendered smartly.

At home in America, when today reaches them it will be Flag Day. For us who wear the uniform every day is Flag Day.

It is said there will be no more wars. We must pretend to believe that. But when war comes, it is we who will take the first shock and buy time with our lives. It is we who keep the faith. We are not honored for it. We are called mercenaries on the outposts of empire. … We serve the flag. The trade we follow is the give and take of death. It is for that purpose the American people maintain us. Any one of us who believes he has a job like any other, for which he draws a money wage, is a thief of the food he eats and a trespasser in the bunk in which he lies down to sleep!

Speech of Lieutenant Collins, The Sand Pebbles

“Tomorrow we begin our summer cruising to show the flag on Tungting Lake and the Hunan rivers,” he said. “At home in America, when today reaches them, it will be Flag Day. They will gather to do honor and hear speeches. For us who wear the uniform, every day is Flag Day. We pay our honor in act and feeling and we have little need of words. But on this one day it will not hurt us to grasp briefly in words the meaning of our flag. That is what I want to talk about this morning.”

He paused. Chinese quarreled noisily on passing junks. As always, ragged coolies watched from the bank.

“Our flag is the symbol of America. I want you to grasp what America really is,” Lt. Collins said, nodding for emphasis. “It is more than marks on a map. It is more than buildings and land. America is a living structure of human lives, of all the American lives that ever were and ever will be. We in San Pablo are collectively only a tiny, momentary bit of that structure. How can we, standing here, grasp the whole of America?” He made a grasping motion. “Think now of a great cable,” he said, and made a circle with his arms. “The cable has no natural limiting length. It can be spun out forever. We can unlay it into ropes, and the ropes into strands, and the strands into yarns, and none of them have any natural ending. But now let us pull a yarn apart into single fibers–” he made plucking motions with his fingers “–and each man of us can find himself. Each fiber is a tiny, flat, yellowish thing, a foot or a yard long by nature. One American life from birth to death is like a single fiber. Each one is spun into the yarn of a family and the strand of a home town and the rope of a home state. The states are spun into the great, unending, unbreakable cable that is America.”

His voice deepened on the last words. He paused, to let them think about it. It was a new thought and it fascinated Holman. Just by living your life you wound and you wound yourself into the big cable. The cable grew and grew into the future like a living thing. It was a living thing. The thought fascinated Holman.

“No man, not even President Coolidge, can experience the whole of America directly,” Lt. Collins resumed. “We can only feel it when the strain comes on, the terrible strain of hauling our history into a stormy future. Then the cable springs taut and vibrant. It thins and groans as the water squeezes out and all the fibers press each to each in iron hardness. Even then, we know only the fibers that press against us. But there is another way to know America.”

He paused for a deep breath. The ranks were very quiet.

“We can know America through our flag which is its symbol,” he said quietly. “In our flag the barriers of time and space vanish. All America that ever was and ever will be lives every moment in our flag. Wherever in the world two or three of us stand together under our flag, all America is there. When we stand proudly and salute our flag, that is what we know wordlessly in the passing moment.”

Holman’s eyes went to the flag. It looked almost alive, streaming and rippling in the breeze off the river. He felt that he had not ever really looked at the flag before.

“Understand that our flag is not the cloth but the pattern of form and color manifested in the cloth,” Lt. Collins was saying. “It could have been any pattern once, but our fathers chose that one. History has made it sacred. The honor paid it in uncounted acts of individual reverence has made it live. Every morning in American schoolrooms children present their hearts to our flag. Every morning and evening we render it our military salutes. And so the pattern lives and it can manifest itself in any number of bits of perishable cloth, but the pattern is indestructible.”

A foul smell blew across the fantail. It was from a passing string of barges taking liquid Hankow sewage back to the fields that fed Hankow. Sailors called them honey barges. The foul breeze made no difference in the bright, rippling appearance of the flag.

“For us in San Pablo every day is Flag Day,” Lt. Collins went on. He was talking easily but earnestly. “Civilians are only morally bound to salute our flag. We are legally bound. All Americans are morally bound to die for our flag, if called upon. Only we are legally bound. Only we live our lives in day to day readiness for that sacrifice. We have sworn our oaths and cut our ties. We have given up wealth and home life, except as San Pablo is our home. It marks us. It sets us apart. We are uncomfortable reminders, in time of peace. Those of you who served in the last war will know what I mean.”

Heads nodded along the ranks. Holman nodded too.

“It is said there will be no more war. We must pretend to believe that. But when war comes, it is we who will take the first shock and buy time with our lives. It is we who keep the faith. We are not honored for it. We are called mercenaries on the outposts of empire. But I want to speak for you an epitaph written for an army of mercenaries such as we in San Pablo.”

He cleared his throat and spoke solemnly:

These, in the day when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth’s foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling
And took their wages and are dead.

He paused again. There was some foot shuffling in the ranks. They did not want to take this stuff too personally, Holman knew. Lt. Collins hardened his expression. His eyes bored at them. He seemed to loom above them on the grating. His voice rang harshly.

“We serve the flag. The trade we all follow is the give and take of death. It is for that purpose that the American people maintain us. Any one of us who believes he has a job like any other, for which he draws a money wage, is a thief of the food he eats and a trespasser in the bunk in which he lies down to sleep!”

It shocked them. Holman felt his cheeks burn. That was not the idea he had of himself. All along the ranks they were looking down at their feet.

Lt. Collins talked on, his voice quiet again. He talked about the flag code. There was a lot of it. The honey barges moved by and the air was clean once more. The flag was a Person, Lt. Collins said. The union of stars was the flag’s honor point, its sword arm. You always displayed the flag so that it faced the beholders. There was only one time when the flag turned its back on the beholders. Lt. Collins’ voice became hushed.

“That is at a military funeral, when one of us who has lived and died honorably goes to join the staff of the Great Commander,” he said. “Then our flag lies face down on the coffin and clasps the dead man in its arms. I am not ashamed to believe that in that moment the spirit of the dead man passes directly into our flag. That is our special reward, who keep the military faith.”

He said it quietly, looking at them quietly, and went right on.

“So may we all live and die honorably, each in his own time,” he said. “And now in closing, I want to read you what Calvin Coolidge, our Commander in Chief, has to say about our flag.”

He pulled a white card from his pocket and read: “Alone of all flags, it represents the sovereignty of the people, which endures when all else passes away. Speaking with their voice, it has the sanctity of revelation. He who lives under it and is loyal to it is loyal to truth and justice everywhere. He who lives under it and is disloyal to it is a traitor to the human race everywhere. What could be saved, if the Flag of the American Nation were to perish?”

Published in: on June 14, 2021 at 5:28 am  Comments Off on Today is Flag Day  
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