There has been a lot of media attention surrounding the United States flag due to Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit during the national anthem. And while I may have differing views from him, this post isn’t a deconstruction of those views. Instead, it’s my story of my flag.
Ask any kid who grew up on a military base what happens at 5 o’clock in the afternoon and they’ll tell you – the flag is taken down. The call of retreat is played and everyone stops. Literally. Cars stop in the road, soldiers take off their cover and stand at attention, and kids stop playing. My father always made it a point to respect the flag going down (and probably when it was raised, while I was fast asleep). Although you didn’t have to get out of the car, my father did.
He never talked extensively about his military service, likely because he couldn’t. I would hear the occasional work gripes – usually about a computer issue. (At the time, I didn’t know that my father was more than just the IT guy of his unit because he did so much more.) But I know he was proud to serve and fight for his country. I remember a phone conversation I had with him.
It was either sometime in 2006 or 2007 (or maybe even 2008). I was on my patio in Sherman Oaks, overlooking the parking lot of the Ralph’s next door. He was talking about possibly being sent to Iraq. When he mentioned it, I was scared like any child would be of their father being in a war zone. But he said that if he could help, he will. In that moment, I was so proud of him. And amazed by the depth of my father’s dedication. Always the soldier.
I recently found the flag my father received when he retired from the Army. He served 22 years. I wish I knew that flag was up there on top of the bookcase with his old Korean books – I would have told him to display it. I’d encourage him to get a flag pole for outside the house and help him raise it like I learned to, years prior.
In fifth and sixth grade, I was a “Junior Police Officer” at school. A group of us would direct traffic at the intersection in the mornings and afternoons to make sure the kids could cross safely. I was so thrilled when I reached the rank of sergeant because that was my father’s rank. (I eventually made Captain, but SGT Mann will always be my favorite title.)
As part of our duties, a few of us would arrive early enough to raise the flag outside the main office. We would also lower it; that’s where I learned to fold the flag. It was the vice principal that first allowed us to take over the flag-raising and lowering duties. I always liked him. His was the first funeral I ever went to. I remember my father comforting me when I broke down crying because I thought the casket was too short because he was so tall. We were still in Hawaii, then.
At Schofield Barracks, the base flag going down will be forever linked in my memories with swim team. The flag pole was right in front of the swimming pool. After the last notes of “To the Colors” sounded, we would all jump into the pool to start practice. We never dared to jump in early. Dad would pick me up after the hour-long practice. If I rode my bike to the pool, he would stuff it in the trunk as I would either be too tired to ride back home (and likely still dripping wet in my swimsuit). My memories of swimming and Hawaii invoke a feeling of magic for me – a time before things got wonky. And forever linked to my father.
The second funeral I ever went to was for my grandfather – my father’s father. The phone call at 9-something a.m. that woke me up was answered with a not-so-sensitive tone from me. Dad broke the news. We weren’t ready for this (is anyone ever?) He was in Florida or Georgia at the time, so he hopped a plane to Louisville. It was Derby weekend so the flights out were expensive, but I got a flight too. After this, my father and I were always weary of 9 a.m. phone calls during the week.
My grandfather served during World War II. There was a flag at his funeral, folded up and displayed on his casket. I don’t remember much of that day, 15 years ago. But I remember my grandmother leaning over and giving her husband of 50-plus years a kiss. I never really knew my grandfather except being a gentle giant with kind words. “Everything’s lovely,” he would say and he meant it.
Eventually, my father received that folded flag. After my grandmother died. My third funeral. This loss cut deep for my father. I think he regretted not calling more or living closer to home, a regret I’ve come to share. She always worried about him and I think he felt lost without someone like that in his life. I thank God he got to say goodbye and that she waited for him.
My father’s loss of his mother encouraged his co-worker to reach out to his mom. They were estranged for a while, but Mike did not want to have regrets.
After my grandmother passed away, all I wanted then was to be by his side, but I never really understood the pain he was going through. I was flying out of Los Angeles and my dad was flying out of SeaTac, but we both had a layover in Atlanta on our way to Louisville for grandma’s funeral. In fact, I had to board the plane he was already in to continue on. He saved me a seat in the front row since we were flying Southwest. Not that he needed to, since it was a late flight and not a lot of people were traveling to Louisville that night. My granddad’s flag would travel on Southwest sometime later when my uncle took it home. The pilot made an announcement at the end of the flight to thank all those who served in the United States Armed Forces after he spoke with my uncle.
I called my dad on my grandmother’s birthday this year. Because he recently got a new smartphone, the call wasn’t forwarded to his work number because “call forwarding doesn’t work with MetroPCS.” I didn’t leave a message after the first call because I wanted to talk to him, so I called again to get his work number off his outgoing voicemail message. I called his work phone, but he didn’t pick up. On the third call to his cellphone, I left a message: “I just wanted to say I love you today. I love you everyday.” He called back and left me a message, “Why did you call three times today? Now I’m worried.” Like I said, we didn’t like 9 a.m. phone calls when it wasn’t the weekend. He saved my voicemail and I saved his.
For Christmas, I bought my father a display case for granddad’s flag. A time before, I noticed that he still had it in the plastic bag that was provided by the funeral home. After my father went to bed, I sneaked into the upstairs family room, took the flag from its hidden home, placed it inside the display case, and wrapped it the best I could given that it was a very big triangle. I hope my father loved the present.
He placed it on top of the piano in the downstairs living room, flanked by pictures of me from elementary school – crooked teeth and all. My parents bought the piano when I was 7 years old. I was taking piano lessons at that time and would have to practice every day for years. My piano teacher played piano at my mom’s church. She was always so soft-spoken and lovely. She passed away this year from colon cancer – the same weekend as David Bowie.
When I found out that a friend in Los Angeles was diagnosed with colon cancer, I was in the garage at the new house in Tacoma. I told my father and could hear the concern and heartbreak in his voice when he said, “Oh no.” He shared in the hope that she’ll be okay. My friends were his friends, automatically, because he loved me.
We were waiting for my mother to return as I flew up to surprise her for Mother’s Day. She had left after I got off the phone with them. When I drove up to the house, he was working in the front yard. “Did someone call a lawyer,” I said when I opened the car door. At first, he was confused and then he was so happy. He came up with a scheme to lure my mother back to the house and loved that he could help with the surprise.
I flew out early on that Monday after Mother’s Day. I had to be awake by 4 a.m. Dad was actually impressed that I got myself awake without his help. (He once woke me up on Christmas with the TARDIS sound blaring out of my phone speaker; he got me a TARDIS as a present. We shipped it to my office, where it is now displayed next to the window.) At some point, he was thinking about accompanying me to the airport and he would just catch the bus back, but he was tired. I had to return the car anyway. He loaded my bags into the back of my rental and gave me a hug. I really didn’t want to leave. In fact, leaving after my visits home were becoming harder and harder because I missed my parents and wanted to be closer to them.
I called my father on the way to my usual Fourth of July plans. I was hanging out with British people; he found that funny. I told him about the new cat. I told him I loved him. Later that day, I took a picture of a flag, posted it on Instagram and wished a happy holiday to America.
I said this was a story about a United States flag. It’s far from linear and it is far from over. But I can’t really write the rest right now.
Because all of this was really a story about another 9-something a.m. phone call and why I knew it was bad news before I answered. It’s about the piano that was next to the couch where my father slept the night before. It’s about Mike holding my father’s hand and my hand on the same day, hours apart.
It’s about holidays and presents and why it’ll never be the same. It’s about physical distance separating parent and child and the regrets that come with it. It’s about great tradition, the Armed Forces and family. It’s about how my uncle inherited his father’s flag and how another took its place.
A story about my fourth funeral and how my father was there, too, and why he couldn’t hold my hand this time. A story about watching a United States flag being folded up and “Taps” playing in the background.
About the last hug. The last phone call. The last ‘I love you.’
And the only flag that I will cherish above all others, because it’s my dad’s last flag.