2: Old Glory Flies Again

2: Old Glory Flies Again

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Spirit of America

Old Glory Flies Again

Unity is strength… when there is teamwork and collaboration, wonderful things can be achieved.

~Matti Stepanek

My colleague Norris Kyles and I had been running on a steady diet of fast food and fear for almost a week, ever since May 18, 2013, when several rounds of monster tornadoes struck central Oklahoma. Moore, Oklahoma took the brunt of the storms, but many of the surrounding communities were severely damaged, too.

Norris and I worked as journalists at KFOR-TV, the NBC affiliate in Oklahoma City. He worked as a photographer; I worked as a reporter and anchor. During the endless days of breaking news, we’d both encountered things no one should ever see.

More than two-dozen people died from the storms, and hundreds more were hurt. Once the storms passed, many people had nothing left. Others tried to salvage what little of their lives they could still find. Hopelessness, anger, and despair were easy. Optimism, positivity, and resilience were not.

Indeed, as Norris and I approached Memorial Day, neither one of us felt very good. People across the country would go on trips, attend barbecues, and usher in the summer that upcoming weekend, but not us. The time for rest and relaxation would come much later. We had people who needed us. We had stories to tell. And we had a job to do.

That Friday found us doing it in the small town of Bethel Acres, Oklahoma.

“What are you thinking?” Norris asked me, as he parked the car on what remained of a road that once led into a tiny subdivision. Storm debris, downed trees, piles of bricks, trash, and ripped up memories had replaced most of the homes. That morning, management at KFOR sent us to Bethel Acres in an effort to widen the TV station’s coverage and make sure we didn’t leave out some of the smaller communities.

Norris turned off the car. “Who do you think we should interview?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess we’ll just pick one.”

Over the last week both of us had filed more “local family tries to rebuild” stories than we could count. Every day, and every story, had started to bleed into the next. So many people needed help. We could have told stories for a month and never told them all.

I scanned the neighborhood for someone who looked interesting and might put a different spin on all the sadness. “We need some…”

And then I saw him.

Alan Burch walked right in front of our car at that moment, dressed in his U.S. Air Force battle dress uniform. He was sweaty and tired, but he had a determined look on his face. More than that, he clutched an American flag to his chest.

“What’s that about?” I said to Norris. “Let’s talk to that guy.”

Norris grabbed his video camera from the back of our news car, and I took the microphone. We stopped Alan, and he told us that he’d found the flag wrapped around what remained of a neighborhood tree. He didn’t know who owned it, but he also didn’t care. Despite enduring massive winds and tremendous pressure, the flag only had a few small holes. He took that as a sign.

“I had the fire department get their ladder out,” Alan told me. “We pulled it out of the tree and folded it, and now I’m just looking for a place to hoist it up.”

But this neighborhood in Bethel Acres didn’t have standing homes, much less standing flagpoles. The mission looked bleak.

Alan didn’t care.

“This flag means a lot to me, being a member of the U.S. Air Force,” Alan said. He went on to tell us he wouldn’t rest until he found a place to hang Old Glory. “It’s a symbol of this community rising up and getting away from this tragedy.”

For the next fifteen minutes or so, Norris and I followed Alan around the neighborhood as he searched for someone or something that would help him complete his effort. A small group of onlookers had joined him, all of them determined to see that flag fly again. Norris and I concentrated on getting as much sound and video as we could; we didn’t have to tell each other that we’d found our story for the day.

When Alan asked David Meeks for help, the journey took another turn.

“We couldn’t not help him. We couldn’t say no. We couldn’t turn our heads,” David told me.

David and some of his fellow volunteers from Bread of Life Humanitarian Effort drove to Oklahoma from Paducah, Kentucky in the hours after the first round of devastating storms. The group had no idea what they’d find, or how they’d help, but that didn’t matter. People needed them, and they wouldn’t leave their fellow Americans behind.

“We don’t let little things stop us from helping out,” David said. “We’re blessed to be able to do it.”

In Bethel Acres, the volunteers put their skills to work, spearheading the effort to clean up what Mother Nature hadn’t taken away. They had tools, generators, food, water, and skills. Most of all, they had hope.

The team from Bread of Life found a broken chain-link fence pole and straightened out the metal with cinder blocks. As the small crowd of grieving and downtrodden people watched, David and his team drilled two holes in the pole and cut two large swaths of chicken wire. They wrapped the wire through the holes and threaded the flag on to it. Then, with Alan’s help, they jammed the pole into the ground and raised the flag in the middle of the storm-swept neighborhood.

By then, almost everyone around the community had paused to watch them raise it. Trash pickup, hammering, sawing, and sorting could wait. Many people cried once the flag flew again — including Norris and me. It was a moment of unity and strength at a critical time for all of us.

“Do y’all know what they just did? They took a fence pole and made a flagpole in like ten minutes,” said onlooker Benjamin Jones as we gathered the final elements of our story. “I’ve never seen anyone do something like that in my life. Watching them join together and raise the flag like that, it made me proud to be with them. It made me proud to be an American.”

I couldn’t have agreed more. At that moment, we were all Oklahomans. We were all Americans. And we were all going to get through tough times together.

~Sara Celi

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