Of Flags and Costs

September 14, 2004

In the days following September 11, 2001 American flags sprouted everywhere. They appeared on bumper stickers, on lapel pins, on car flags, and on buildings.

Some of those flags are still there, including one particular eyesore visible from the Ben Franklin Bridge heading into Philadelphia - a huge building-side flag that is now sagging, faded, discolored and covered in dark stains that are probably mildew. No picture - don't like shooting from the car while driving on the bridge - but it is a very large and very sad image.

The people who displayed flags after 9/11 and then did not care for them made me think of the animal shelters who, every spring, are flooded with baby ducks, chickens and rabbits from people who bought a pet without considering that once you own it, you are responsible for it.

The American Flag Code gives guidelines for displaying an American flag; I suspect that other nations have their own guidelines. I do not know if the Flag Code has the force of law or if it is simply written custom, but I do know that it condemns the display of a worn, tattered, or faded flag. One of my neighbors has flown the same flag in front of his house, day and night, since before I moved in; it is very faded and grey. Elsewhere I have seen people running strips and tatters down a flag pole - I hope they replaced it.

The American Military guidelines, for places with normal weather, are that a flag flown on a vertical pole from dawn to dusk will need replacement after 90 days of use. Flags flown 24/7 will last only about a third that long. I have gotten over a year of use out of the sewn American flag in front of our house, and it should last until next flag day. Of course, I also alternate it with a Betsy Ross flag from time to time, and when I start adding to my flag collection next year I will be adding more variants of the Stars and Stripes.

So flying a flag from your house means $35 a year for replacements (flag day is a good day to change the flag), plus replacement for the pole, grommets, and other hardware as needed. It is not a large cost, but it is a continuing cost. You don't just plunk down your $20 or $35, run the thing up the pole, and walk away. Or, in the case of that disgrace in Philadelphia, you don't plunk out the couple of thousand for a mega flag and then just leave it hanging. They have to be maintained - at night you either run the flag down or shine a light on it, but don't leave it all alone in the dark - they have to be replaced; they can be repaired and resewn.

The Flag Code suggests that the only way to dispose of a worn flag is to respectfully burn it, and most American legion chapters have an annual flag funeral day where they will safely and respectfully perform this duty.

I thought about dropping a letter to my Representative suggesting that any flag-burning amendment include a provision mandating that people not display worn, tattered or soiled flags. I did not, if only because there are occasional stories of people who own a particular flag with great sentimental value, and who fly that flag to tatters for some family emotional purpose. The example that comes to mind is a family whose father served in Korea and brought back a flag, and who flew that thing throughout the three years or more of his long, lingering, final illness. That tattered rag was an important family symbol.

I do not know if the flag of shame in Philadelphia is an emotional symbol or if it is something that was run up after September 11 and then left to rot. I fear it is the latter.

Posted by Red Ted at September 14, 2004 08:40 AM | TrackBack

"The American Military guidelines, for places with normal weather, are that a flag flown on a vertical pole from dawn to dusk will need replacement after 90 days of use."

Peripherally related tidbit:

One of the high schools we designed had a flagpole out front. The head facilities guy at the School District was ex-military, and balked at the flagpole design because there was no light, and he was sure that the folks at the school would be lax in taking down the flag at dusk, especially in wintertime when dusk comes so early here. He required that we re-design the flag area to include lighting. So we did.

Posted by: KJ at September 14, 2004 01:55 PM

I don't know about you all, but I have never burned a flag, and see no reason to do so. Nevertheless, the day that flag burning becomes illegal, I will burn a flag in protest.

Posted by: flag burning at December 14, 2004 12:48 AM
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