Everywhere you see the bunting and flags—East Sacramento prepping for the Fourth. When we were kids on 42nd and D there was no grand parade but the holiday was rollicking then too. Our father brought home little flags from McClellan and we marched around with them singing Yankee Doodle. In the evenings our mother read enthralling poems to us—Paul Revere’s Ride, Flanders Fields. She said we were patriots. She said her father, born in occupied Ireland, loved the USA, and so did she. She said our Dad, his brother and her two brothers had all fought for America, for us, and it was our duty to grow up to be good citizens. We said, why can’t we be citizens now, and she said we were, little ones, the little citizens of Forty-second Street.
One year a man and woman moved into the small house on the corner and immediately installed in their front yard a prodigious flagpole. My father said maybe they thought they were the City Hall, and my mother said, “Maybe they think they’re the Post Office.” For some reason this got my parents laughing. On Memorial Day the new couple raised an enormous flag that seemed to dwarf their modest craftsman. By now the man was frequently seen on the street wearing a jacket festooned with military medals. It wasn’t a military jacket, simply a light windbreaker dragging heavily on the left where the medals had been affixed. My father chatted with him one evening and reported that he was a retired army vet who operated a short wave radio in his basement and was on the alert for Communists. I didn’t know what Communists were but they seemed thrilling. My mother said they were just people, like us, but were misguided.
The man’s name was Carl but his wife, Elsa, called him Captain. My father thought there was something wrong with someone who wore his medals on civilian clothes and my mother said it was ridiculous but it took all kinds.
On the Fourth we had the usual dizzy blur of hotdogs, wading pools and running around in the sun, and by the six o’clock block barbecue we were wild with excitement and exhaustion. Captain Carl taught us how to salute his giant flag. “You have to respect the colors,” he said. “Remember that.” Later Captain Carl told my mother that Mrs. Gleason, a retired teacher on the other corner, a widow, was a red. I had never seen my mother get mad at another adult but she folded her arms and said sternly, “Mary Gleason is no more red than I am.” I ran to my sister, Kathleen, and told her that Mom was getting Captain Carl in trouble. We raced back to the excitement. By now a group had formed and Captain Carl said anybody, even the most innocent looking, could be a red.
A red. Mrs. Gleason sat in a little canvass chair by the Toniola’s lawn. She had white hair, white eyebrows, white skin, a white blouse and pale blue pedal pushers. She wore straw colored sandals. The only red thing about her was the little flag in her lapel. Kathleen said, “She’s not red. Even her lipstick wore off.”
The adults became increasingly agitated, with the majority coming stoutly to Mrs. Gleason’s defense. By the time we tumbled into our cars and went in a caravan to watch the fireworks from the old fairgrounds, most of the grown-ups were irate about Captain Carl. When we went home my father, Mr. Gibson, and portly Mr. Carr went over to the Captain’s house, having decided, while drinking their beers, to upbraid the Captain for besmirching Mrs. Gleason’s reputation.
When my father returned he told my mother that the Captain answered the door in his robe, the medals now pinned on it. My mother went into one of her long laughing fits. My father said, “Can you believe it? The g.d.s.o.b. had the g.d.b.s. things on his robe.” Whenever we were listening my father tried to swear in initials. He added that the g.d.s.o.b. was a Sergeant, not a Captain.
What was a red? I pestered the answer from my parents. Reds were belligerent Communists, who wanted to conquer us, but we were not to worry; Eisenhower wouldn’t let them. I couldn’t grasp how Mrs. Gleason, who lived on 42nd street in Sacramento, and painted water colors of sunflowers, could want to conquer us, or why.
The Captain moved the next year and subsequent Fourths were harmonious. My mother continued to read poems to us, adding The Patriot by Browning, Liberty by James Whitcomb Riley, and many more as we grew older and were at last able to sit still for Gilbert Keith Chesterton. Mrs. Gleason died at 92 and no Communist banners were unfurled during her quiet service at a Methodist church.
When the little citizens of 42rd street came of age our patriotism evolved differently from that of our parents. In college I participated willingly in anti-Vietnam protests; my brother Danny enlisted in the Navy, was stationed in Da Nang. When he came home he joined the Vietnam Vets Against the War. Many people disapproved of these actions—the Captain surely among the outraged––but our parents listened to us, and stood by us. My father, who had served in the Pacific theater in WWII, had a small flagpole suspended over the porch and when Martin Luther King was killed, he put the flag at half-staff. He did the same when Bobby Kennedy was shot. Thereafter he flew it on Memorial Day, Flag Day, The Fourth, Veterans Day—all the apt occasions.
Much later came a presidential election where flag protocol became a furious issue. Some argued that we should be obligated to pledge allegience and salute. I asked my mother what she thought of all this. She said if Germans hadn’t saluted the Swastika they probably would have been shot. Same for the Russians with the hammer and sickle. “But you can do as you like with our flag,” she said. “And ours is still flying.” I told her she made a great point. She said, “It’s what your father believed.”
This Fourth I will display a large flag. It’s the memorial flag presented to my mother when my father died. I display it for the man who earned it in war, the woman who appreciated its worth, and their children, who inherited and exercise the freedoms for which it stands.