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Flag washing


June 18, 2014

It was a beautiful August day as we gathered in the town square. Two large tubs, one with soapy water and one with clean water, had been set up in front of the speakers’ podium. A good-sized flag hung from a clothesline behind it, its stars and stripes bright in the sunlight. Two more clotheslines hung on either side, plentifully supplied with clothespins. A table held the dishes that had been brought for what I guessed was a potluck to follow.

Everyone had flags. Small ones, large ones, flags hanging from flagpoles, flags stapled to sticks, flags draped across shoulders.

Mrs. Smythe, a sprightly elder woman well known in our community, stepped up to the microphone. “Good afternoon, everyone,” she said. “Welcome to our flag washing ceremony.

“Today, we come together as neighbors, friends and fellow-citizens, from all parts of our community, to remember parts of our history that we would, perhaps, much rather forget. But just as we share in the benefits of being Americans today, so we must also share in responsibility for our country’s actions, both today and in the past… for as this song declares, ‘This is our country.’ Please join us as we sing…”

She began, in her high, reedy voice, and we all joined in: “This is my country, land of my birth….”

Then Rev. Francis stood up and made some remarks. There were plenty of days when we celebrate our achievements as Americans, he said, but sometimes we have to remember the rest of our history as well. The moments when we didn’t live up to our professed values. The times when we made mistakes. My Lai. Abu Ghraib. Such incidents, he reminded us, stain our reputation; in a sense, they stain our flag.

He stopped, and scanned the crowd with his stern but kindly eyes. “So we are here today,” he said, slowly and deliberately, “to wash our flag.”

As some solemn music played, a group of four, Rev. Francis and Mrs. Smythe among them, took down the large flag from behind the podium, and carried it flat to the tub of soapy water. They dunked it and wrung it out several times, and then repeated the process with the clean water before returning the flag to its place.