I have never been an overly patriotic person.
Before I go any further, let me say without a doubt and before I get pelted with the stones of the "love-it-or-leave-it" crowd that I love America and count it among my undeserved blessings every day to be where I am.
It's just that patriotism and national zeal have always struck me, like religion and who you voted for when the little curtain was drawn behind you, as intensely private matters best contemplated and examined close to the heart. The luxury, no doubt, of being part of a generation thus far unscathed by a real period of trial "bleeding-heart, know-nothing punks," I can almost hear my dad saying in my mind's ear. I know the words to the national anthem sing it at baseball games, even but don't tear up when the U.S. wins gold at the Olympics. (Well, unless the ceremony is preceded by one of those manipulative, network vignettes...)
I was quite caught off guard, then, at my own reaction to the wave of fervent USA fever that showed up, in St. Louis as in places around the country, following the horror of September 11. From thin air, flags and flag-like items materialized and adorned every conceivable post, from standard-issue flagpole to gaudy hair scrunchie (a man on Rollerblades tried to sell me one from a duffel bag on the sidewalks of Clayton) to, in my neighborhood, a replica Statue of Liberty who might seem more noble were her torch not so outlandishly out of proportion.
On Wednesday morning, after the plane crashes, I went back to work, and the first flag I saw was hanging halfway down the impressive staff in the center of Tower Grove Park. There was something so striking about it: it looked majestic and forlorn at once, hanging with funereal solemnity in the middle of this lush landscape on a brilliant, sunny day. I've driven by this flag at least 20 times a week, 52 weeks a year, for almost four years now. But it suddenly looked quite different to me. As the flags multiplied exponentially each day, I started playing a little game with myself as I was driving: I would see if there was any section of neighborhood where there wasn't a flag visible within my field of vision. There were very few spots where the last flag I saw faded out of view without another to take its place.
American flags, displayed proudly in front of homes or from porch perches, had always seemed to me sort of quaint throwbacks to another time, most often carried on by folks over 60 who added it to their list of things to do while puttering around in retirement. Nothing wrong with it, necessarily, but nothing I could imagine as making a real difference one way or another. Harmless, in other words. Over the last two weeks, I've become silently grateful to all the people who have chosen to display a flag from the Vietnam vet on my street to the Bosnian coffeehouse at Grand and Chippewa to the developer of another hideous suburban monstrosity, The Meridian, near Brentwood and 40, who chose to cover his artist's rendition with a large flag. It has made the ephemeral nature of what our country is all about very real to me, and kept constant physical reminders literally right before my eyes. Just like I can't see a plane passing high overhead now without saying a silent prayer to the universe, I don't think I will ever look at a flag the same way again.
I'm still not shouting, "My country, right or wrong," just because I'm loath to declare my anything right or wrong; I'm a big believer in a certain level of relativism. (Dad, get out of my ear!) And I still think there are lots of tacky displays of uninformed, chest-beating patriotism out there, more now than ever. That's part of the beauty of our country, I suppose, that those folks and I can coexist peacefully.
And ain't that America?