Flag Day, coming up Friday – midway between the solemnity of Memorial Day and sparks and sizzle of Independence Day – gives Old Glory another day to sparkle in symbolism and history as summer heats up.
Ray Ketcham, commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 7288 in Calabash, N.C., leads flag education classes for fifth-graders at four Brunswick County schools every winter. Rod Gragg is director of the Center for Military and Veterans Studies at Coastal Carolina University in Conway. Both men were happy to elaborate on the Stars and Stripes.
Ketcham shed light on an endeavor he shares with a crew of six to eight VFW colleagues on outings.
Question | How has flag education become a signature VFW program, to help instill values in youth?
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Answer | It’s one of our projects on the national level. We go to local schools. ... It’s like an assembly on the proper ways of hoisting and lowering the flag, and how to fold it.
Q. | What special characteristics are woven into the fabric of the U.S. flag’s background?
A. | There are 13 folds to the flag, and a meaning to each fold. ... One of them symbolizes mothers. ... Two VFW member will fold a flag, and I narrate. Then we give little tidbits about the early colonial days, and open up the floor to a question-and-answer period for the kids. I usually have six to eight veterans with me.
Q. | When teaching flag education, what main points do you punctuate?
A. | We punctuate the meaning of why the flag is folded ... and why it’s always in a triangular shape, and why it’s folded 13 times and about how it’s presented at funerals for dignitaries and deceased military personnel.
Q. | How is Flag Day extra special for a passion so deep in your heart as a veteran?
A. | As a veteran, and more importantly, as an American, I want to say our flag symbolizes freedom across the world. You don’t see the Americans fleeing other countries; it’s the other way around. As Larry the Cable Guy would say, “It’s what we are.” We’re strong, independent, and we like that independence. ... It also recognizes sacrifice, by a lot of people who have given the ultimate sacrifice for the flag and for what it means.
Q. | What tidbits about Old Glory deserve more attention?
A. | Respect, and there is a proper way of disposing it. Some of these liberal-minded instructors will say it’s just a piece of clothing and they will throw it on the ground and lets students walk on it – It’s the wrong point to make. .. There’s a great, great ballad by Johnny Cash, called “This Ragged Old Flag”: That sums the whole thing up right there.
Q. | What makes you smile inside and out during presentations at schools?
A. | The kids are very interested; they’re very attentive, and they ask some very poignant questions. At that age, they’re at the height where they’re going to starting thinking for themselves ... and they’re very focused on what we’re doing. ... Even the teachers will say, “I didn’t know that.”
Q. | What flag and historical tidbits and connections excite you in your audience interaction?
A. | Spell out the numbers in 1776 – what does it add up to? There’s your 21-gun salute.
Gragg, who has authored various history books – such as “George Washington: An Interactive Biography” and “By the Hand of Providence: How Faith Shaped the American Revolution” – and produced a series of documentaries, also lit up when asked questions about the nation’s flag.
Q. |.What major milestones and transformations in the U.S. flag have occurred?
A. | The American flag’s official birthday is June 14, 1777. That’s when the Continental Congress passed legislation establishing what it called “the Flag of the thirteen United States.” It had 13 red and white stripes, which alternated, and 13 white stars on a blue canton in the upper left corner. There was no official arrangement of the stars at that time. Usually, the 13 stars were placed in alternating rows, but some flags placed them in a circle.
Q. | So that was the first U.S. flag?
A. | Officially. But there were earlier flags used in the Revolutionary War by Patriot forces. One depicted a rattlesnake with the motto “Don’t Tread on Me.” Another bore a pine tree with the slogan “Appeal to Heaven.”
One of the most popular flags used by American troops bore the motto “Resistance to Tyrants is Obedience to God.” which reflected the Patriot American belief that the British government was suppressing God-given or “inalienable” rights, such as life, liberty and the freedom to pursue happiness. That one was also Thomas Jefferson’s personal motto.
During the siege of Boston in 1776, the Grand Union Flag was raised above George Washington’s headquarters – it was also called the Continental Flag. It featured 13 red and white stripes with the British Union flag in the upper left corner. It had been used by American naval vessels at least a year earlier, and by British ships for generations. It wasn’t used very long by Americans in the Revolution because of the British flag that was on it, but that’s probably where our flag’s red and white stripes originated.
Q. | What about Betsy Ross? Did she really make the first American flag?
A. | There really was a Betsy Ross, a seamstress in Philadelphia, and she really did sew flags. She also apparently knew George Washington. Whether she actually made the first U.S. flag is a topic of debate. However, I think there’s usually a lot of truth to enduring traditions, so I think it’s safe to say that the Betsy Ross story certainly reflects her role as a flag-maker and supporter of the Patriot cause in the Revolution.
Q. | What did the U.S. flag that flew over Fort McHenry look like – the one that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen his famous words during the War of 1812?
A. | That flag is generally believed to have been the huge garrison flag that is on display in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, although some historians think it was a smaller “storm flag.” Regardless, it had 15 stars and 15 stripes because Vermont and Kentucky had become states, and Congress had increased both the number of stars and stripes to reflect that. It became apparent pretty quickly, however, that adding stripes would be very impractical, so Congress changed the flag back to 13 stripes with a new star for each new state.
Q. | Where did the name “Stars and Stripes” come from?
A. | I’m not sure anybody knows the answer to that for sure – other than the obvious fact that our flag is composed of stars and stripes. The name “The Star-Spangled Banner,” of course came from the poem written by Francis Scott Key when he saw the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore in 1814 – the poem that became our national anthem.
Q. | What’s the most historic style of the flag?
A. | Well, from 1777 to the present, there have been 27 versions of the flag with various arrangements of the stars. In 1818, Congress made the 13 stripes permanent – 13 red and white stripes for the 13 original states – and declared that one star would be added to the flag for each new sate. The new star would be added on Independence Day following the admission of the new state. So, I guess you could say that arrangement is what’s most historic about the flag. The longest-lasting style so far is the 48-star flag, which was around from 1912 to 1959. When Alaska became a state in 1959, the 49 was added on July 4, 1960, after Hawaii became the 50th state.
Q. | What do you think will happen to the stars if we get a 51st state, Puerto Rico, for instance?
A. | I don’t know – historians shouldn’t do much speculation. But if you want to look for a historical precedent, after Wyoming became the 44th state, in 1890, the 44 stars were arranged in alternating rows of seven and eight stars.
By the way, June 14 was declared Flag Day by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916, and Congress made it official in 1949 with legislation that was signed by President Harry Truman. But the date of June 14 was selected because the Continental Congress established the national flag on June 14, 1777.