It’s tempting to trace the surrender of my flag waving patriotism to Oct. 18, 1967, when helmeted riot troops used batons to shatter lobby windows on the University of Wisconsin Commerce Building and moments later to crack the skulls of students protesting the presence of Dow Chemical recruiters on campus.
But the unvarnished truth is that I relinquished Old Glory the following morning when the Capital Times, the Wisconsin State Journal, Governor Knowles, and our local Madison radio stations branded the protesters as traitors.
A traitor? Me? Impossible! I was an apple pie eating, milk gulping, true blue American who welled up whenever Kate Smith sang “America the Beautiful”? Well, naïve and self-righteous as any college student in the Sixties, I let my accusers snatch the flag right out of my hands. Let them have it, I sulked, I don’t need to have a flag to be a patriot.
Thirteen autumns later I was married a dozen years and raising five children, a hard working, tax-paying, virtuous homeowner living the American Dream in upstate New York. Then James Dobson and his Family Research Council mounted a well-organized, well-funded cultural war against anyone who disagreed with their fundamentalist views, effectively dividing the country between the moral and immoral, good parent and bad, patriot and, yes, traitor. But by then I too busy teaching, changing diapers, playing catch in the backyard—and was also probably a little too sanctimonious for my own good–to pick up the challenge, to grab back the flag I had dropped as an impetuous student.
So … it is now more than forty years since my innocence was shattered along with those windows on the UW campus, and these days I see the world filtered through the aging eyes of a father of seven, grandfather of twelve. And while some things have admittedly slipped out of sharp focus, this much is clear: I have no one to blame but myself for relinquishing the flag to my accusers. I should have fought for what was—and remains–rightfully mine.
After all the unseemly accusations and outright lies about citizenship and patriotism I heard in the past presidential campaign, I am now taking it all back–the flag, the family values, my lost patriotism, all of it. I’ve been silent too long. As my late mother would say with her flattened hand like a salute pressed against her forehead, I have had it up to here with false pieties.
From now on Old Glory will be flying proudly from the formerly empty flag holder on my front porch; you’ll see me waving the stars and stripes with gusto at the next parade marching down Main Street in New Paltz; and you’ll hear my voice loud among the others, tears on my cheeks, a grandchild on my shoulders, belting out the Star Spangled Banner.