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Flag has connection to unwavering memories

My Flag. I first remember seeing it when I was 4 or 5. It was during a Memorial Day parade in my hometown of Little Falls. I was standing on East Main Street next to my mother and in front of Bride’s Cigar Store. My maternal grandparents lived over the iconic pool hall.

As I watched the beginning of the parade nearby, I noticed four men in uniform in the lead and one of them was carrying it. Red, white and blue stripes with a bunch of white stars surrounded by what seemed to me to be the night sky. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. As the men passed by, I looked around and noticed similar pieces of cloth-some smaller and held in the hands of parade goers-larger ones hanging from store fronts. I asked mom what they were and she answered, “the American flag.”

My flag. Another Memorial Day when I was in my teens, Rog Kopp and I were heading home after marching in that parade, members of the renowned Little Falls High School band directed by the one and only, Dolgeville native and virtuoso trumpeter, Don Musella. Dressed in our purple and white uniforms, medals earned from music competitions pinned to our chests, we loved passing by younger kids who, when they saw us oohed and aahed. I can still recall one who asked his mom, “Are they soldiers?”

Must have been those medals that triggered his inquisitiveness. Halfway home, we crossed through Church Street Cemetery, passing numerous elderly people either standing before or kneeling by the tombstones. Some were planting poppies and geraniums while others just stood there, heads bowed in silence; especially those near graves marked by small American flags. In reverence, Rog and I stopped yapping. The red, white and blues signified to all that beneath that hallowed ground rested in peace a veteran. It was a golden day in May. I could smell the perfumed scent of my favorite flowers — lilacs — mainly white ones as their purple “brothers” had mostly died away. As we exited the cemetery, I turned and looked back. There they were — seemingly everywhere — fluttering in the breeze. My flag.

My flag. It was 1970 and, along with hundreds of others, I was in Utica attending a protest against the Vietnam War. Another glorious, sun-filled day, this time in early October. I probably should have been taking a walk in Brookwood Park, enjoying a panorama graced by trees resplendent with red and gold leaves, mother nature’s artwork at her finest. But there were, as they say, bigger fish to fry. I was teaching history at Herkimer County Community College and, based on considerable research, had come to the irrevocable conclusion that the supposed war to stop the spread of communism was pure and simply wrong-a profound foreign policy faux pas primarily made by President Johnson and his sycophants; Johnson who pledged during his presidential campaign not to send “American boys” to Vietnam.

By the end of his second term 500,000 troops had been deployed. His successor, Richard Nixon, elected after promising to bring “peace and honor” to the conflict, secretly escalated the fighting into Laos and Cambodia. Gasoline on the fire. Protests became massive and, letting conscience and integrity be my guide, I joined the fight.

My experience as a protester was short-lived. My issue was with a misguided, immoral (the lies) foreign policy and the officials propagating it; not with the troops themselves. They were doing their duty as ordered. I mean, how the hell could I disparage men like a childhood friend who died on Christmas Eve, 1969, in a Viet Cong prison camp or the brother of a good buddy from Mohawk who was killed-in-action? The “loser” and “baby killer” epithets which became a hallmark of the movement were a bridge too far for me. But what really incensed me that day was the burning of a flag. I sounded off in protest against that action and got into a shoving match with a couple of college kids. Cops broke it up. I headed home, promising myself to do my protesting via articles in local papers.

Note: Following the war I became an advocate for ‘Nam vets, taking several to appointments at the Syracuse VA Hospital, writing numerous articles and organizing conferences featuring nationally renowned experts on the topics of Agent Orange and PTSD, establishing with my students scholarships and dedicating monuments in the memories of KIAs throughout the Valley.

My flag. It sure as hell shouldn’t be flown upside down. There seems to be no doubt that the country is badly divided today, and I’m not about to take sides. But to disrespect the very symbol of this nation in that manner speaks poorly of those responsible. You can agree to disagree, but not at the expense of vilifying that beautiful piece of cloth. The same cloth covered the caskets of Marine SSGT. Joseph “Stash” Zawtocki, Jr. (Vietnam), Marine Corporal David Mills (Vietnam), Navy Seal Lt. Michael Murphy (Afghanistan), Army Pfc. Philip Spine (WWII), Akimel O’Odham Indigenous American Marine Corporal Ira Hayes who helped plant the flag at the top of Mt. Suribachi, Iwo Jima (WWII) and all the others who sacrificed their lives in the springtime of their years.

Several years ago, I had the great honor to speak on Memorial Day at a ceremony in a beautiful little park in the hamlet of Burlington Flats. The home of Army Cpl. Michael Lee Mayne. Mayne who was killed in action on Feb. 23, 2009, in Balad, Iraq. He was 21. The Hunger Coalition named its Cookie Corps (delivers snacks and sundries monthly to the Marine Corporal Gregory Harris Hospitality Room at Hancock Airport in Syracuse) after him.

At 82, my memory is fading fast, but I can recall that sun-kissed day like it was yesterday.

I spoke about Michael the man-a kind, caring, brave, patriotic kid blessed with those precious values which have always distinguished the sons and daughters of rural America. I beseeched the audience to remember him by making their tomorrows better than their yesterdays. I stopped for a moment, then continued by asking everyone to look up at the flag flying from a pole in the park’s center. Then I finished by asking all in attendance to work together to help make the final words of the pledge — “with liberty and justice for ALL” — a reality.

Driving home, I looked back. The last thing I saw in the rear view mirror was-you guessed it-that American flag. Our Flag.

Ray Lenarcic is a 1965 State University of New York at Fredonia graduate and is a resident of Herkimer.

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