‘Tis of Thee

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Sean Dietrich

By Sean Dietrich

It hangs from my porch, slack on a breezeless day. It is stunning in the early sunlight. The colors are so vivid you can see them from 76 miles away. Oxide red, ivory and ultramarine blue.

These three colors are everywhere in my neighborhood. Heck, they’re in every neighborhood in every state. They hang from patios, flagpoles and vehicle antennas. They are plastered to bumpers, windshields, on hats, bandanas and coffee mugs.

Sometimes you can see so many flags you forget they’re around. But believe me, they’re out there.

I’ve never done this before, but this morning I counted them. I drove around tallying up how many American flags I saw. I counted 208 within a few-mile radius. Even more if you counted the miniature flags perched in front yards.

I saw them in front windows, on warehouse rooftops, I even saw one painted on a dump truck. They hang from hardware stores, gas stations, barbecue joints, laundromats, Mexican restaurants, barber shops, assisted living facilities, newspaper offices, auto garages, churches, beer joints, synagogues, nightclubs, strip malls, vape superstores, banks, rehabs, jails and beach condos.

I remember seeing the Stars and Stripes in Mrs. Wilks’s kindergarten classroom. The poor woman tried to teach 18 of us kids with runny noses to recite the Pledge each morning. Her patriotic banner dangled above the chalkboard next to the alphabet posters and a painting of General Washington.

If I close my eyes, I can still see that linoleum and asbestos classroom, and I can still hear Mrs. Wilks playing the upright Mason & Hamlin while we learned the lyrics to the patriotic classics:

“…Stand beside her, and guide her…”

“…From sea to shining sea…”

“…And the rocket’s red glare…”

“…And forever in peace may you wave…”

“…My home sweet home…”

“This land is your land…”

“American woman, mama let me be…”

Well, maybe not the last one.

But you should have heard the kids sing. We sounded like a flock of noisy cats. Squeaky voices. Horrible pitch. The lyrics were completely lost on our young minds. We had no idea what we were singing. And truthfully, at our age we had bigger things to worry about. Like whether we could go an entire classroom period without peeing our pants.

But when I got a little older, I found new appreciation for the banner of our homeland. It happened one autumn day in Tennessee.

I was a kid. My father was an ironworker. He was on the crew that built the General Motors plant in Springhill. He worked late hours and deep overtime. Every evening he came home with mud and soot on his face, wearing the artificial raccoon-eyed tan from welding goggles.

I remember that my father and I arrived at the job site on his off day. The crane operator was about to clock out for the weekend. Which meant they were going to hoist a generator into the air with the crane’s load block to discourage thievery.

Before they hoisted the enormous generator, my father and the operator unfurled a large flag. They attached it to the steel lines. And when the crane’s thunderous winch lifted the flag into the air, the breeze caught the red-white-and-blue and whipped it sideways, tossing acres of fabric above Maury and Williamson counties like a bedsheet.

The men on the jobsite watched it fly, heads cocked, mostly quiet mouths. There were no loud excavators, no backhoes, no bobcats. No arc welding machines, no jackhammers, no rivet guns, no sound. Just a bunch of guys looking at a flag in silence.

And I felt something. It was a feeling that gave me gooseflesh, and still does. It was a feeling of belonging. And solidarity. Of unspoken friendship. I was one of them.

I belonged to these men, and together we all belonged to something that was bigger than the state of Tennessee, bigger than a region, bigger than the designated hitter rule. We belonged to each other. We were countrymen.

I am not the world’s sharpest stick, but I know that this nation is not just 328 million people living on the same patch of continental dirt. We are human beings who, even though we have historically disagreed, believe in the same inalienable things.

We are people who come from the same gritty immigrants, who were once strangers on this gentle land. We are people who get lost sometimes. We are a people whose worst assailants, historically, have not been disease, famine or acts of God, but each other.

But somehow, even after the hell of finding our own legs, we still love these three colors. We still sing about them at ballgames with full voices. We still drape them over caskets. We still defend them. We still teach our kids about them.

We wear them on our T-shirts. We hang them in our supermarkets. We dangle them from job sites.

A Czech-American truck driver flies one from his eighteen-wheeler. A teenage first-baseman from Detroit tattoos one his forearm. A third-grade teacher in Fort Worth uses them to decorate her classroom.

Because these are not just pigments on fabric. They are a majestic idea. One I believe in. And I know you do too. An idea that gives me the right to love you like a brother. Because you are my brother. And I am yours.

And although the world will little note, nor long remember what I say here, I just wanted you to know why the American flag flies from my porch.

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