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Mooring a new view of the U.S. flag

Until last week, I was a closet American.

I came of age in the so-called "golden bubble" of the last quarter of the 20th century. As part of the first generation to grow up after the Vietnam War and Watergate, I and the like-minded of my generation had as birth-rights an inherent cynicism, an obligation to question our government and look with a wary eye on America's dealings in the world.

In the absence of a war (with the exception of the Persian Gulf), we rabbled about America's role in everything from nuclear disarmament to apartheid in South Africa. As the former Soviet Union crumbled and the United States emerged as the world's sole superpower, I became self-conscious of America's role as the world's bully.

It's been on my many trips abroad as an adult that I've felt my ambivalence with being an American most acutely. Ever aware of the image of the "Ugly American," I've strived to be anything but. Always conscious of foreigners who view America as a loud-mouthed, spoiled child, I've struggled to distance myself from that image.

Yet, with a sense of irony, I found that the more I saw of the world, the more fortunate I felt to be an American -- to have been born into this land of far-reaching freedoms. Still, wandering countrysides from Asia to South America to Europe, while always feeling fortunate to be American, always glad that I had America to return to, I didn't -- hypocritically, I admit -- want to advertise that I was American.

Before a trip to Europe a few years ago, I read a column by a travel writer on how to be an "unobtrusive" American traveler. If in doubt, the writer concluded only half in jest, tell others you're Canadian. Though I've never done that, I've seriously considered it on several occasions. In Thailand last year, a friend I was traveling with commented on how I responded when people inquired where I was from. "I'm from the U.S.," I would mumble, rather than the more common response, "I'm from America." I did this, I told him, because I often felt, rightly or wrongly, that merely uttering the word "American" was inflammatory.

This summer, I spent a couple of months with my family sailing our small sailboat up the Inside Passage to Alaska and back. Much of our time was spent along the coast of British Columbia. It's the custom in the maritime world to fly the flag of your home country from the stern of your boat and a courtesy flag from the country in whose waters you are traveling from up the boat's mast.

Before we left on the voyage we rummaged through lockers but were unable to find our American flag, which we'd stowed away after the last trip. My dad bought another one at the local marine supply store -- along with a Canadian courtesy flag -- and I breathed a silent sigh of relief as he unfurled the Stars and Stripes and fastened it to a stern post: it was small. I rationalized my relief out loud by saying that it matched our boat size.

A big issue during our time in Canada was a tariff the United States announced it would impose on Canadian timber imports (an issue that now seems small and irrelevant). Angry headlines about it were splashed across Canadian newspapers when we were docked in Prince Rupert, B.C., and editorials denounced the move in resentful language. I felt my familiar self-consciousness about being American grow like a new bruise. As I came and went from our docked boat, I would try not to glance at our small flag on the stern -- as if looking at it emphasized my role (as if I had one) in the tariff issue.

As we made our way first north, then back south a few weeks later, we saw many other boats from the U.S. Some flew small American flags from their sterns, others larger ones. I tried to judge my fellow sailors' characters and worldviews by their flag size. "Oh, they must feel as I do," I'd think when I saw a boat with a small flag like ours. I felt self-conscious for those with big, unruly flags that I judged too gaudy.

We passed one sailboat, not much bigger than ours, just before we returned to our home port less than two weeks ago with a huge American flag flying from its stern. The boat's captain had lofted the flag high up on the backstay, so it was visible from far and wide. As we passed the boat I gazed at the flag -- I could even hear it snapping in the wind from a good distance across the waters of Puget Sound -- and thought it symbolic of us audacious Americans.

When our sailing trip was over my father took both our flags down and gave them to me -- a memento, he said, of my first "captaincy" of our boat. I felt happy with the honor bestowed on me, folded the flags up and tucked them away with my things to take home.

Two days later, Sept. 11 happened. As I've sifted through my feelings of shock and horror in the days since, I've found something else in that mix of emotions: a pride in America -- in being American -- that I've never felt before. As people began to hang flags from porches, my first thought was that we didn't have a flag; my husband and I have never hung one out on Flag Day or Memorial Day or any other occasion. Then I remembered our boat flag. I dug it out and hung it by our front door. When I came home the other day, my husband had moved it to a post in our front yard, right by the street. Good, I thought. More people can see it there.

I don't know what will happen in the days ahead or how I will feel about it. I will still take issue with policies or decisions our government makes that I disagree with -- for that, too, is what it is to be an American. But America was changed last Tuesday, and I was changed too.

As we were cleaning up our boat to leave it after our trip, we found some flags from previous trips stowed in the bottom of a locker we'd missed before. There were flags from voyages in other times, in other oceans. A French flag, a flag from the Kingdom of Tonga, one from New Zealand. And at the bottom, a huge American flag. We unfolded it and laughed at its enormity. Had we ever flown that flag from our stern? Surely not.

Next time, I think, that I visit the boat I will pull that flag from its locker and bring it home. I have a feeling I'll need it.

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