By day's end, the flag didn't seem so important


ON THAT DAY, flags seemed important.

It was the Fourth of July 1985, and we were students in Europe, singing our way through cathedrals, parks and town squares, following a segmented path that would stretch from Stuttgart to London.

We had remembered our music, our throat lozenges, our voltage adapters, but no one had thought to bring a flag.

The oldest in our group had graduated from high school: some 3,640 days of looking at the intercom during the pledge of allegiance, 13 years of ignoring the flag hanging from its braided gold thread, straight and somber against the pale green wall.

Things are less important when they can be taken for granted.

We sang patriotic songs to attract a waiter's attention. "It's the Fourth of July," we proclaimed.

"Yes," said the Frenchman. "And yesterday was the third and tomorrow will be the fifth. We speak different languages; we use the same calendar." He laughed as he turned to the kitchen, for he knew exactly what we meant.

"Why didn't I think to pack a little paper flag?" moaned one of the sopranos over her eggs, and the rest of us agreed, anxious for a symbol of our collectiveness, for the outward proof that we were Americans.

We seemed to forget the outward proof that we carried, evidenced by other Americans who spotted our group and asked where we were from and where we were staying. We forgot that our faces carried our patriotism. We didn't need a flag to display it.

By mid-afternoon, we stood in the shade of the cathedral at Chartres, hoping a cool breeze would rise from its old gray stones. Still dressed from our concert, we wore red, white and blue polyester -- in various combinations of skirts, blazers and pants. The group was unified by the American Music Aboard patches above our hearts -- but the colors weren't enough. It was only in the proper formation, in the straight rows of red and white, in that top-heavy corner of blue, that we would accept and find solace in our common symbol.

As we planned the rest of the day, our talk focused on the things we would "die for": hot dogs painted with mustard, fireworks punctuated with sonic booms, a cheap box of sparklers -- American things, being taken for granted by our own families on the other side of the world.

I was shuffling my music, resheathing it in its black folder, when a man and his son stoped in front of me.

They were from England, on holiday, and had heard the song in which I had a solo.

"You sounded wonderful," said the boy, pushing his bangs to the side of his forehead with a short, fat finger. "Really fine."

"Thank you," I said. "It's hard to sound bad in a church with such good acoustics."

"The echo was incredible," said the father. "You must love to hear your own voice bounce back at you like that."

I nodded, watching my friends as, behind the Englishmen's backs, they pantomimed a quick escape.

"You know that sound waves never really stop; they just echo more quietly," said the father, as I nodded more quickly.

"Someday," he said, picking up his son and holding him while the boy teased his father's curly hair, "we'll have the technology to separate sound waves and we'll be able to hear your song again."

My friends were drifting toward the street, pointing to me as they walked backward.

"Or maybe they won't be able to separate them properly, and history will assume you sang at the coronation of a French king, or at a martyr's beheading," he chuckled. His son, not knowing what else to do, laughed with him.

Later that night, my friends and I reveled in our Americanness -- we sang the songs we sang in elementary school, we set off the fireworks we managed to buy from a street vendor already stocked for Bastille Day.

It was late in the evening of the Fourth of July when I thought about my voice, my American voice, being separated from the other noises in the cathedral, being heard again in the distant future. And it occurred to me that "American" seemed a silly distinction to make, a small strain in a much larger mixture.

It also occurred to me that the American flag is but one of many.

Sandy Moser writes from Takoma Park.


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