What I am about to do, I have only seen and never actually done. Not only am I going to be standing in front of a couple hundred people inexperienced, but I know for a fact that there are some veterans in the audience. The air was sticky and heavy, making it even more difficult to breathe. Even though the sun had been replaced by the moon for some time, the summer heat left it feeling like it was noon. Standing motionless with five others we all waited for our time to enter the bonfire lit stage.
We could all hear the laughter and cheers from the crowd, but we keep our voices silent. We want to make sure we hear our cue, even though we know that the best cue will be the solemn expression of the spectators. However, we are silent because there was a deeper reason; at least a deeper reason why I am not talking. Thoughts of how the ceremony was to be performed constantly ebbed through my mind. Thoughts of whether I was going to mess up. Thoughts of what everyone else would think of my part in the ceremony. Thoughts of time, and wishing it to just be finished, so that I could just go back home after it was done. In the whirl of these thoughts, the crowd instantly became quiet. We take our positions and we follow the dirt path to the outdoor auditorium carrying the wind torn and faded star spangled banner.
The fire in the center of the auditorium made it less humid, but the increased heat made it just as uncomfortable. Our mission was to retire the flag that had unified three years of teenagers to serve America; purposefully we begin slowly to open the tightly folded flag. It was not yet my part, but I watch with intent as the carrier held tightly as another paused each time he undid a fold. Time was without end. After many pauses the flag was fully unfolded revealing all of its tears, tears that were formed from the seasonal winds as boys had become men in its presence. This flag was flown as the ceremonial flag for the Boy Scouts of America for the past three years, and in that time produced patriotic ideas for all those that have seen it. My fellow scout proceeded to explain that through its service to America, it was now time for us to pay our respects and retire the flag. It was now time for my part in the ceremony.
With a pair of shears in my hand I approach the flag. I open the shears and place them directly on the line separating blue from the alternating red and white. Closing the shears is a challenge, more of a challenge than I would have ever thought. The flag was not made of paper; it was made of something much stronger and firmer despite all of the tears. The first cut is particularly difficult, but after a few attempts the flag finally submits. Each cut from the shears is an effort. The fifth person holds the blue field of stars, the flag’s expression of loyalty and unified efforts of all Americans, as it is completely removed from the rest of the spangled banner. The beautiful blue field of stars is folded with care and held with the same respect as the whole flag.
I cut each red stripe from the white stripe, separating each of the original colonies. I lay each removed stripe on top of the folded field of stars, taking caution to ensure that no part of the flag ever touches the ground. The cutting of each stripe is just as or more difficult as the removal of the field of stars because my hand cramps. Sweat makes it even more difficult to concentrate because both hands are occupied as one is holding the flag and the other holding the pair of shears. Time seemingly is not present. I lay each red stripe, for every person who sacrificed themselves for that flag and America, over top of each white stripe, for the idea that America is the land of the free, which is then placed upon each red stripe with just as much care and purpose. The last two stripes remain, and the shears completely sever the two leaving the flag separated into its parts.
My part is finished, and I hold the shears while two others take one of the stripes and gently lay it on the fire. Once the fire consumed the stripe fully the next stripe was placed on the fire in a similar manner. The fire was lively enough to take each worn stripe within a minute of meeting each other. Once the thirteenth stripe had become ash the field of blue stars was unfolded and then placed on the fire just like the stripes. We then make a line in front of the fire and the wait began for the flag to be wholly retired, our leader then solemnly said, “Our Flag Rest in Peace.”
Our ways parted and we did not speak until the next day, and we did not speak of the ceremony. Why we never spoke about that ceremony had never sparked my curiosity until I passed a dumpster after the Fourth of July. It was full of “stuff” resembling the flag, the same star spangled banner that a group of us painstakingly took to disunite and caringly place in a fire to show our respect for everything the flag meant for America. I realized my part was not finished, that ceremony left me with a new view of that flag that was impossible to forget. The Star Spangled Banner is more than a piece of cloth or just a flag: it is a symbol bearing the burden of representing all the ideas and history of America. The ceremony respected this and acknowledged the heavy burden of the flag by retiring each portion of the flag separately, while maintaining that each part of the flag is just as important as each part it touches. Before that ceremony, I would have thought it patriotic to wear the stars and stripes. Now there was a difference between placing the flag on something, like a uniform, and wearing the flag as a shirt.
The flag had become a symbol of American wholeness, a palette of colors symbolic of the people along with the ever flowing freedom that passed over it with every wind. Everything about the flag was important now.
Phillip Wages is a junior from Blanchester, Ohio, majoring in Toxicology.