I attended a funeral yesterday for the father of a lifelong friend of my wife, Gerald “Mac” McManus. Mac was buried at Tahoma National Cemetery with full military honors after more than two decades of active duty in the United States Air Force, including service in Vietnam and Korea.
I didn’t know Mac very well, but I was still deeply moved at his burial ceremony. I’ve attended a few military funerals in my life, most recently for my grandfather who served in the Army, so I knew what to expect: the Honor Guard carrying the casket with the draped flag, the crisp “snap” of the flag before they fold it, three loud rifle volleys, a single bugle playing Taps, and the reverent presentation of the folded Stars and Stripes to the family.
But even knowing what to expect, and this being the funeral of a virtual stranger to me, I still had a hard time maintaining my composure at a few points of the ceremony. The initial “snap” of the fully displayed flag over the casket always makes me well up, the rifles jolt me every time, and I can’t keep my eyes dry as the folded flag is presented to a surviving family member – in this case Mac’s widow, Judy. The military burial ceremony is extremely formulaic, and yet deeply intimate. It’s clearly designed to help the surviving family feel proud of the deceased veteran, and it does exactly that.
I was extremely glad to see that the last thing the Honor Guard member said to Judy as he handed her the neatly folded flag was “God Bless You,” but couldn’t help but wonder if social and political pressure might at some time in the near future eliminate that line from the ceremony, as is the pressure to do so in courthouses, schools, and other public fora.
I also couldn’t help but think back to my own first experiences with the American flag. As a young immigrant to this country, on the first day of third grade in Portland, Oregon, I felt embarrassed to death that every other kid in the class knew the words to the Pledge of Allegiance, while I stood there with my hand over my heart, glancing around the room, trying to guess the next words to come out of the other kids’ mouths. I was rescued by Tracey O’Neill, who gifted me a yellow pencil box with a small flag and the Pledge printed under the lid. I peeked at that pencil box in my desk for the next few weeks until I’d memorized it. Oh, and I forever had a crush on Tracey from that point forward, all the way through high school. 🙂
But it wasn’t until I was a Cub Scout and met Jim Hill that I really started to learn what an important symbol the flag was. Jim was a World War II veteran, and an active member of the American Legion in our area. He held a deep reverence for the flag as well as all etiquette surrounding it, and he made sure to pass that vital information along to as many young Cub and Boy Scouts who would listen. It was from Jim that I learned how to properly fold the flag, present it, post it, raise it, salute it, illuminate it, carry it, store it, and (in cases where appropriate), destroy it with dignity, respect, and honor. I remember one time when I was in a group of young Boy Scouts who accidentally let the corner of the flag touch the grass at a July 4th flag raising breakfast at church. Jim demanded that we immediately burn the flag and fetch an “unsoiled” one to raise up the pole. Nobody dared argue, and that’s exactly what we did. That leaves an impression on a 13-year old boy.
When I was 15 years old, Jim presented an American flag to me at my Eagle Scout ceremony, as he did with every Eagle Scout at our church. But Jim was a special friend to our family, and the flag he presented to me was also special to Jim, as he had owned it for many years. It was a cotton 48-star American flag that had flown on a battleship in the Pacific during World War II. When I grew up and bought a house, I installed a 25-foot pole and proudly flew Jim’s flag until the elements beat it up to the point that I retired it, folded it neatly, and stored it in a triangle presentation box, where it now sits on the top shelf in my office. In its weathered state, Jim would have probably made me burn it… but I can’t bring myself to do it.
When I was 16 years old, I was invited to sing the National Anthem at a Portland Trailblazers basketball game. I remember warming up and practicing in a locker room in Memorial Coliseum, and the echos of “Oh, say does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave” bouncing off the painted cinder block walls, almost choking me up even before I stepped onto the hardwood court and grabbed the microphone. When the time came, I faced the flag and sang. Clyde Drexler smiled at me. The crowd cheered. Probably not for my singing, but because the game was about to start. But I felt proud to honor the flag in that moment.
As an adult, my flag pole has hosted a number of American flags, two of them supplied by my congresswoman, the late Jennifer Dunn, one that flew over the U.S. Capitol building on the day my son passed away, and the current one that was recently given to me by Jennifer’s son – my friend and next-door neighbor, Reagan Dunn. Each one being respectfully retired before a new one took its place 25 feet above my lawn.
So I’m not exactly sure what it is that makes me choke up when the flag is presented at military funerals. Maybe it’s the memory of an 8 year-old Tracey handing me the pencil box, or 80 year-old Jim handing me my first American flag, or the Trailblazers handing me that microphone. Or maybe it’s the knowledge of what that flag truly stands for, and the brave men and women who have lived and died to defend it. Maybe it’s the sad fact that many seem to have lost sight of the importance of the flag and the ideals it’s supposed to represent: freedom, democracy, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Or maybe I’m just glad to see that there are still some situations where the flag is respected appropriately, handled with dignity, and reverently presented to the survivors of fallen heroes from a grateful nation.
Thank you, Tracey.
Thank you, Jim.
Thank you, Jennifer and Reagan.
And thank you, Mac. I didn’t really know you, but I know you fought to defend the freedoms that so many of us take for granted. And that’s all I really need to know to owe you appreciation.