BEFORE THE FALLS: Our flagpoles, ourselves

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July 4, 2011
By: chuck terhark
chuck terhark

An identity crisis 20 feet above my backyard.

The empty flagpole that stands in the rear of my backyard isn’t normally a point of shame for our household. But this time of year, as pride in our country and pride in our lawns collide in one hot festive weekend, I find myself gazing skyward to where a flag ought to be and finding only emptiness.

The flagpole came with our house, as did a flag, for a time. It was there at the open house, old and ragged but dutifully flapping away, the clearest glint apart from the fairway-grade lawn of the 92-year-old bachelor who’d spent his entire life in this story-and-a-half stucco bungalow in Northeast Minneapolis. William was his name, and he’d passed away a few weeks earlier, which is why we were treading on his perfect lawn and imagining gardens and flowerbeds and a future in the skinny shadow of that flagpole. Later, after we’d owned the house a while, a neighbor told me a little more about the old man he’d called “Wild Bill”: He walked to the neighborhood liquor store every day after work for a pint of blackberry brandy, and he had the pole installed after he retired. “I’ve put in my time,” he’d said. “And now I’m going to put up this flagpole and nobody’s gonna stop me.”

Nobody stopped two of my friends, either, when they snuck into that backyard the night that we closed on the house and removed the flag from the pole. They delivered the folded triangle to our door that evening as a housewarming gift; one was an Eagle Scout, so I’m sure the old flag was retired with all due ceremony. “You can’t fly a tattered flag,” the scout told me.
It was a new day, in a new house, an occasion that warranted a new flag.

That was four years ago, and I still haven’t run anything up that old flagpole. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to. I just don’t know what flag to fly.

The obvious replacement for an old beat-up American flag would be a shiny new one, broad stripes and bright stars gallantly streaming for all the alley traffic behind my house to behold. But I just can’t bring myself to purchase one. I love America plenty — I just don’t feel like shouting about it. There’s a difference between flying an American flag and buying one, the crass commercialism of which errand becomes evident upon entering a flag store, or even a flag seller’s website. Imagine the gaudy trappings favored by used car salesman (surely the nation’s foremost flag buyers); now imagine the store where used car salesmen shop.

But what do you fly on your flagpole if not an American flag? For as much as Old Glory is a statement, anything else is more so, because the flagpole owner clearly favors whatever banner he’s saluting to that of his nation. I could hone my patriotism down to a more local level, except Northeast doesn’t have a flag (it should!) and the flag of Minneapolis is an eyesore, a monochromatic embarrassment that doesn’t know whether it wants to be a rectangle, a triangle or a circle. The only thing uglier than that flag is Minnesota’s, an unartful clump of symbolism on a boring blue field that includes three cryptic dates and an unfortunate scene starring an armed farmer staring down a fleeing Native American. The whole thing is so distasteful that legislation has been introduced three times to come up with a new design, the frontrunner of which is something called the “North Star flag,” which looks a little like a T-Rex in profile. In other words, a vast improvement.

For a while my girlfriend (a Wisconsonite) and I (a North Dakotan) considered stitching our respective state flags together to symbolize our geographic union in Minnesota. But neither of those flags do much for us either. The niftiest state flag of the bunch is Louisiana’s —pelicans are just cool, aren’t they? — but that just wouldn’t make any sense. Then we considered going the route that so many Facebook users with identity crises choose and putting our dog on a flag. Finally we realized we had more pressing matters to think about — our mortgage, for instance — and joked that a white flag may be the most appropriate.

I’m hardly the only person in Northeast with a barren flagpole. I walked my dog around the neighborhood recently and counted no fewer than 15, nearly as many empty poles as those with flags. Most were on schools, so budgets, and not a crisis of honor, are the likely culprit. Still, it made me want to put something —anything — up my flagpole. So I came to a solution: I ran the flag rope down to the ground, and I’m growing hops vines up to the top of the pole. In the fall I’ll brew a batch of Flagpole Ale. It’s not quite as American as Old Glory, but it feels close.

Northeast-based writer Chuck Terhark will be writing a monthly column for The Journal.