Vexillology


Today, on the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, American survivors of that attack literally embraced some of the Japanese pilots who tried to kill them. Adjectives of “evil” and “inhuman” weren’t used. No one seemed to care what allegiances were sworn back in 1941.

On October 19, Mayor Giuliani said “Pledge of Allegiance Week” would begin the following day. That was on October 19 of LAST year. “Today, I am calling on all New Yorkers, Mets and Yankees fans alike, to pledge their allegiance, and show their support for their favorite team, by wearing their team’s garb for the remainder of the World Series.”

The garb of our national sport was important in World War II, too. Japanese Americans whom we interned a few months after the Pearl Harbor attack were not permitted to leave their desert camps. There was an exception, however. If they were wearing their baseball uniforms, they could ride buses to other internment camps for games.

More recently, our mayor supported an effort to make another Pledge of Allegiance mandatory in New York schools — or, rather, to enforce a state law already requiring it (although no student need recite it). After all, “The times demand a patriotic citizenship, patriotic schools, a patriotic pulpit, a patriotic press.”

That statement wasn’t made by the mayor. It wasn’t made by George W. Bush or John Ashcroft. It was made in 1893 James Bailey Upham, head of the Premium Department (and nephew of the boss) of The Youth’s Companion, a well-read magazine, just before the Pledge of Allegiance was recited at the National Liberty Pole and Flag Raising Ceremony.

Upham is the person who commissioned and promoted the Pledge. Perhaps it was a patriotic impulse. Or perhaps it had something to do with his selling flags and related paraphernalia. Upham not only pushed through laws requiring the display of the flag in all schools but also urged girls to form “Mending the Flag” societies, which would buy from him an appropriate kit to repair the flags he sold. Alternatively, he’d send the sewing supplies free with enough paid magazine subscriptions.

The Pledge was written in August 1892, in preparation for the 400th anniversary of the first voyage of Columbus to the New World. It was composed by Francis Bellamy, a minister who had been thrown out of his church for socialist preaching.

The first Pledge, as published in the September 8, 1892 issue of The Youth’s Companion, was a lot simpler than the current one. “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Bellamy’s heart was in the last six words. He considered adding “equality,” too. In his later years, he refused even to go to church because of what he found to be racial discrimination.

The American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution got “my flag” changed to “the Flag of the United States” in 1923 (“of America” was added the following year). The Knights of Columbus got “under God” added after “nation” in 1954. There is currently a campaign to add “born and unborn” at the end.

Congress officially recognized the Pledge in 1942. The reason no student can be forced to recite it is that the U.S. Supreme Court so ruled in 1943 — in the middle of our participation in World War II.

We recited the Pledge in my high school, where the school colors were blue and white. My college’s colors were red and gray. And those are the colors of many of the flags I now pass daily in New York: red, grayish-white, and blue. Three months of diesel exhaust, power-plant smoke, and incinerator and oil-burner emissions are not ideal for keeping whites their very whitest.

I did a quick survey today of the retail establishments between home and work displaying the flag. Old Glory appears to be a good indicator of the heritage of the shop owner: Irish bar, Italian restaurant, Israeli-run hardware store – no flag; Chinese restaurant, Korean deli, Pakistani-owned newsstand – flags galore and many God Bless Americas.

As I went for a bicycle ride the other day, I passed a black Mercedes sedan sporting flags on its rear window. It was parked directly in front of a fire hydrant.

In Central Park, the red, white, and blue pavement stripes from the New York City marathon have not yet worn off. Of course, those wouldn’t necessarily have to relate to the American flag. Cuba’s flag, for example, is also red, white, and blue.

Thirty countries have red, white, and blue flags — the largest group; the next most popular color combination is used in only 16 countries. And some of the other red-white-and-blue countries even have red and white stripes and a white-on-blue star field.

In the National Colors used ceremonially by our military forces, the Army and the Air Force have a yellow fringe around their flags. Data Summary Sheet No. 1 of the Flag Research Center, in March of 1995, discusses that fourth color.

“It has been claimed that such fringe is without proper authorization; that it is symbolic of the end of the gold standard as the basis for United States currency; or that it indicates the substitution of admiralty courts and martial law for common law courts and procedures, as part of a conspiracy supposedly instigated by Communists, Jews, Masons, liberals, feminists, homosexuals, or other ‘un-American’ groups.” Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson blamed the September 11 attacks on a similar coalition.

The Flag Research Center refutes each point. Here is one of their conclusions. “Available evidence seems to suggest that the claims made about fringe on the United States flag are intended to promote the political ends — including elimination of income taxes, re-establishment of the gold standard, and denial of legal rights to women, non-Christians, and non-Caucasians — of those who spread those rumors.” Maybe the yellow just indicates that it’s okay to be scared.

In addition to red, white, and blue, New York streets now have a lot of added green. The Christmas-tree sellers have set up their sidewalk stands, where one can buy anything from a potted rosemary bush to a tall Douglas fir.

I like the look and smell of those stands, and I appreciate their being open all night. No matter how early I leave for a job or return, I get to see someone else working in the cold.

Alas, they’re somewhat unpatriotic. Roughly half of the Christmas trees sold on our sidewalks come from Canada, even though New York produces almost two million a year locally.

Today’s New York Times, in the “Weekend Leisure” section, has a story by two half-Jewish New Yorkers about their trip to a local Christmas tree farm to cut their own. They paid just $25 for it, not counting their transit fares.

In true New Yorker fashion, they insisted on a Christmas tree farm accessible by public transportation. The tree, of course, had its own seat on the train.

There might even be a white Christmas in New York. Yesterday, the temperature hit 74 degrees; snow is predicted for Sunday. Tomorrow, when we have to load two TV trucks after a show, it’s supposed to rain.

TTFN, Mark