Ritual, tradition and American trash

Kenny Driscoll asked Patty, his wife, to hand him his crutches. He didn't like what he was seeing and wanted to get out of his truck and take action. Mr. Driscoll is a retired Baltimore police detective who in 2002 lost the use of his left leg after tumbling down a ravine in North Baltimore while chasing a carjack suspect. Every Memorial Day, he and his wife visit his wife's uncle's grave in Oak Lawn Cemetery on Eastern Avenue. Charles Leroy Parker, known to everyone by his middle name, died four years ago. He was a Marine veteran who had served two tours in Vietnam.

Near Uncle Leroy's grave, someone had dropped two small American flags in a trash can. They were of the size used to adorn the graves of veterans and service members killed in action. The flags were visible through the wire mesh of the trash can.

Kenny Driscoll was offended and snapped a photograph.

"My wife knows I can't go far on the crutches," he said. "Seeing how much it offended me — and she, too, was offended — she told me not to worry, she would get them for me. We still have the flags on our back seat. As we drove further toward the exit of the cemetery, we saw another trash can with flags. So we got them, too."

People stick American flags in planters, on car antennas, or stitch them into their jeans or vests, and while some see all that as disrespect — or at least trivialization — that's not generally the intent. Nor was it likely the intent of the Oak Lawn flag trasher (unless the action was a form of protest not previously announced to the local media). It was more likely done out of ignorance. You don't throw American flags in the trash. Flags are supposed to be "retired," and there's a ritual for that. It's spelled out in the U.S. Flag Code:

"When a flag is so tattered that it can no longer serve as a symbol of the United States, it should be destroyed in a dignified manner, preferably by burning. The American Legion, Boy Scouts of America, Girl Scouts of the USA and other organizations regularly conduct dignified flag-burning ceremonies, often on Flag Day, June 14."

Kenny Driscoll plans to take his recovered flags to an American Legion hall or VFW post. Those organizations know how to properly dispose of old flags.

"There is no time when our flag should be thrown in the garbage," he said, "but on Memorial Day it seemed to hit even harder." Mr. Driscoll expressed the hope that "some kids would learn from this."

Some grownups, too.

Listening to Mr. Driscoll's story, it occurred to me that ritual and tradition — the concept of a ritual to "retire" a flag, for instance — gets easily lost in this busy, distracted, pop culture-absorbed society of ours. Unless you were in the Scouts or the military, or from a military family, the care and treatment of the American flag might never become part of your core knowledge.

Tradition and ritual is not for everyone; a lot of people consider such things anachronistic, corny, unimportant or beneath them. And let's face it: We trash a lot of things on the way to the future, trivialize them, render them pulp. We live in the consumerist, disposable-everything age. For rituals to survive and have value, they must be explained, and not everyone has the time, knowledge or inclination to explain.

This is the season of pomp and circumstance. College professors wear their doctoral regalia to commencement ceremonies in steamy auditoriums or in sun-drenched stadiums. It's a tradition — the heavy gowns with velvet bars, velvet tams and hoods — and a professor who did this in sweltering heat two weeks ago reminded me of the symbolism and the importance of the tradition: A doctorate in the arts or sciences is hard-earned and carries the weight reflected in the regalia. Students need to see their professors in their colors, she said, as do parents who just spent up to $200,000 for a son's or daughter's undergraduate diploma. Certainly tuition bills, if nothing else, give all that regalia its value.

But look, there I go with a crass commercial reference to something that deserves far better.

There is a lot of meaningless, ephemeral junk in our culture. It's important to discern those things that endure and give real value to our lives, and keep them out of the trash.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. He hosts Midday, Mondays through Fridays, on WYPR. His email is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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