Michiana Chronicles: It's A Grand Old Flag?

Aug 5, 2021

Credit Brett McNeil

We hit the St. Joe 4-H Fair and did the local bike parade and caught twilight fireworks at the ballpark the night before. The Fourth was a real red-white-and-blue holiday again this year, especially the magnetometers outside the fair. Very Americana.

It was all pretty good fun, especially with a three-year-old, but carried a whiff of the rote and clumsy in our flag-waving and elephant ear-eating, the solemn trotting and urgent smartphone-videotaping of Budweiser Clydesdales. 

Was it a relief to return to a crowd? To celebrate the Fourth in public? 

I admit I wasn’t feeling it quite like the guy strutting the fair in a Kicking Commie Ass t-shirt. 

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My son wanted to do the bike parade in his jogging stroller so I draped a flag over the top that belonged to my dad, a Vietnam vet who’s been dead for 10 years. 

I got the flag for him after 9/11 through a Congressional program where they hoist these things up and down all day over the Capitol and send them to constituents for easy goodwill. I got it back a couple years ago in a box his widow sent from Denver.

Dad had a lot of unfinished ideas but he raised me and my brother to stay out of the military and to respect Ho Chi Minh, who is one commie whose ass we definitely did not kick. 

Maybe dad was doing it wrong. He never even watched Rambo. 

Maybe I’m doing it wrong. I don’t even have a flagpole.

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I think of the old Jasper Johns flag paintings, now suitable-for-office-walls, which began as a young veteran’s commentary on the McCarthy hearings, as a nod to Dada, their meaning unimposed -- perhaps absurd, ironic, implied, left open to feeling and consideration.

That flag is gone. Old Glory has lost its nuance and is strictly a literalist’s banner now. There’s no art in it at all. 

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I watched the Indy 500 this year from the short chute between one and two, and during pre-race ceremonies an Air Force general took the mic. He’d flown in from Alaska on the government dime to cheer a taxpayer-funded, Air Force-sponsored car and told the crowd, “Our greatest advantage remains the patriotism and duty of our service members and the few who support them.”

A pity party? On Memorial Day?

Hang in there, general! We’re all still footing the bill! 

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It was mid-afternoon on the Fourth in Mishawaka and I remained in a funk, listening to the radio in the car, when Ole Harv closed his show with Hendrix’s Star Spangled Banner from Woodstock. Thank you, Harvey.

A needed dose of American art, rooted in the tune and in electric blues but taken way beyond into abstraction, wildly non-literal, and inestimably better because of its originality and its ability to reconstitute, reimagine and recommunicate the song as both a national celebration and protest. It’s completely oxygenating.

I headed home and put on my own copy and listened again. I made my son listen to it. He may not have been as impressed. But my mood had swung; this was worth celebrating on a day of celebration. 

I dug around, played a bunch more records and finally spun a deeper wellspring, Alice Coltrane’s third record, Ptah, the El Daoud, a magnificent and transcendent album. Mystical and earthy, unmistakably American.

The record is also the product of artists, black musical artists in early 1970 -- a time, incidentally, when our beleaguered Air Force was illegally bombing Cambodia -- working far outside the dominant and mainstream culture and its politics. There’s no Hendrix Banner subtext. Just a statement of intent and exploration by Americans advancing America through an American musical language. The music represents itself, speaks for itself. 

The Stars and Stripes not so much, and so I’ve been told. Message received. 

January 6 was a reckoning for a lot of things, the flag included. As a representational object, the flag’s meaning has narrowed and calcified immeasurably year by year since my dad’s compulsory tour in 1968. 

What freedoms, whose freedoms and conceptions of freedom, does that star spangled banner now most loudly declaim? I guess that’s a rhetorical question. You’ve seen the insurrection videos. 

I finally folded up dad’s flag and stuck it back in the basement with his other effects, then watered the plants, and put that Alice Coltrane record back on. 

Music: Alice Coltrane, Turiya & Ramakrishna from Ptah, the El Daoud.