Each American flag tells a different story
4:30 going on 5. The wind has changed to an insistent westerly. A chill is attached, the day will be warm enough to think a fire will be nice by evening.
I hang flags on Memorial Day. Over the years I’ve collected dozens, to no one’s surprise there have been amendments to our national flag as each state’s addition to the union accompanied a design change.
What Betsy Ross started with the stars business has remained the fashion on our national banner. Most other countries don’t bother with the addition or subtraction of sub-sector to their national banner. Kent, Yorkshire and Wales don’t enjoy a separate detail in the flag of England as does Wisconsin, Utah and Georgia on our 50 star quilt. Not that we know which star is ours, but one of them is and that is what matters.
On Memorial Day I also fly the flag of Canada, to my sense there are American states that have a dual allegiance. That lower Canada includes Toronto and Kingston and not Ishpeming and Nekoosa is a fluke of history. Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan are as Canadian historically as we are American. If geology matters, more so. Besides, what’s not to like about a Maple Leaf flag, to some the allegiance is obvious.
As for my other flags, each tells a story of our American odyssey. The Betsy Ross is particularly charming; that huddled circle of stars so like the first 13 colonies, who risked cutting the umbilical cord to mother England. Called Great Britain because England was great, with colonies spread throughout the world, from Hong Kong to Capetown. A business we moderns tend to deplore, with our enlightenment the very idea of a colony seems repulsive. Never mind corporations do a pretty good job of colonizing without the bother of flags or barracks.
We don’t know what behooved Ms. Betsy Ross to embroider stars in a circle but the result is comely. To suspect nationhood needs a degree of comeliness if it expects people to die for a design on a cloth.
Some national flags go with color schemes that strike me as unimaginative. Some have icons, some have words, emblematic designs. Some seem to go against every fashion sense in their statement of pride, some are closer to graffiti. Lots of flags resort to eagles as their symbolic totem. Never bats, bugs, snakes, cows, cheese hats.
With some argument, the first identifiable American flag used a tree as ensign. White pine specifically, to poke the eye of the King of England and his broad arrow reservation of New England’s mast wood. That flag said otherwise.
Reportedly the John Paul Jones’ ship Ranger flew the “Don’t Tread on Me” rattlesnake flag. Likely a timber rattler that isn’t aggressive and nor very venomous. To think the Black Widow spider of the Virginias and Carolinas would have served equally well.
I happen to occasionally fly the gridiron of a certain G.A. Custer, late of Dakota Territory. That flag serves as a reminder to listen to the native noise, know your ground, cover your back. As applies to the open warfare as it does to agriculture, when that former 7th Cavalry didn’t know its ground or the tremor they heard wasn’t buffalo.
Interesting that among certain motorcycle aficionados and pickup truck tribes continues a penchant for the Confederate flag. Impolitic as it sounds, I understand why some states might wish to fly the Confederate flag on ceremonial occasions. If for no other reason than to remind ourselves the price of shrill politics, and a Civil War we are still paying for in subtle ways.
If those pickup trucks understand the price that flag had on towns and villages like Plover and Amherst and Almond and Plainfield and Junction City maybe they wouldn’t be so garish about it. Twenty-five percent of those young men never came back, whether country hicks, illiterates or college grads, who wanted to free black men they had never seen.
Flying the flags of history is to believe history matters. Over the course of the preceding two centuries we Americans have coursed through an estimated 50 different flags, 27 different designs, with uncounted state, regional, quarrelsome wars, land rights, water rights, timber rights, environmental rights editions. Each a different story, a different time, a different reason, a different hope, all for the same place, what we call America.
Justin Isherwood of Plover is a fifth-generation farmer and the author of Book of Plough,Christmas Stones & The Story Chair, and Farm Kid: Tales of Growing Up in Rural America.