A FLAG OF ANY SIZE

A FLAG OF ANY SIZE

From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

A Flag of Any Size

Deeds Not Words

Twenty-second Infantry Regiment

Frank Havlik leaned against the wet brick of the Seventh Avenue firehouse and lit a filtered Camel. Frank was one of a group of middle-aged fathers and husbands living in Hudson, New York, who unofficially gathered every Saturday to debate and philosophize. Today, conversations drifted from weather to politics to the war.

The war in the summer of 1968 was in Vietnam. Frank’s only son, John Martin Havlik, whom they called Marty, had enlisted six months earlier and was serving his first tour in the jungle. Marty’s mother had begged him not to go, and his four younger sisters had all cried the day he left home. The family had already lost a neighbor to the conflict thousands of miles away, but Marty was not deterred. He felt it was his duty as an American to help the less fortunate—a sense of duty Frank had instilled in him at an early age. Frank was proud of his son and respected his decision to enlist.

“How’s Marty?” asked one of the men.

“He seems to be all right. We just got a letter this week,” Frank replied.

Frank had already read the letter a dozen times. In the back of Frank’s mind, a constant worry for his son pulled at him, so reading about Marty’s exploits, no matter how dangerous, was always comforting. Maybe it was simply knowing Marty was alive and well at the time the letter was written.

Frank abbreviated a story from his son’s latest letter for his listeners. “He complains there isn’t enough to drink and that it’s too damn hot. After being in the swamps for a few weeks, he was issued a few canteens of water to shower with, but he decided to drink it instead.”

The men all laughed. Most had known Marty since his baptism.

“I would sure hate to be bunking next to him,” one man called out.

“Especially if he smells like his father,” another man remarked.

Frank crushed out his cigarette on the sidewalk. His friends could always make him laugh and forget about his worries—at least temporarily.

As the conversation wound down, the men noticed they were not alone on Seventh Avenue. The nice weather had drawn a crowd to the park across the street, where one man, who was probably only a few years older than Marty, carried a megaphone and seemed to be leading the gathering.

“How many more must die?” the man with the megaphone shouted. “What are they dying for?”

Hudson was not a big town. The men often joked, “You’d have to quadruple the population of the town just to fill up Yankee Stadium.” But like many American towns that summer, Hudson had its own Vietnam protests.

Frank had seen these types of unscheduled rallies before. They mostly consisted of bored teenagers yelling, singing or praying. There was never any threat of violence. Today, however, looked to be different. Frank did not recognize the man with the megaphone. His tall, lanky body and bright red hair would have been easy to remember. The stranger was new to Hudson but not new to protests. He was an electrifying speaker. Soon the crowd was motivated, yelling to a beat and throwing their fists in the air in unison. Frank could not remember a rally ever being so loud. He felt the hair on his arm raise. Standing where they were—just across the street—the men by the firehouse could not help but watch.

“This country is sending its sons to die,” the stranger shouted. The crowd agreed with a chorus of boos and obscenities. At the height of the excitement, the leader grabbed a small American flag that was nearby and pulled it out of the ground. It was the kind of flag people line their driveways with on the Fourth of July or place in honor at a tombstone. It was not the six-foot hand-stitched version of Old Glory, but it was an American flag nonetheless. The man held up the small flag and held a lighter flame near its edge.

None of the men had noticed Frank leave the firehouse. But, suddenly, he was there, next to the lighter-toting protester. Without a moment of hesitation, Frank grabbed the flag out of the stranger’s hand.

Frank Havlik, son of a Czech immigrant, veteran of World War II and father of an American soldier serving in Vietnam, did not lecture the young man. He simply took the flag and returned with it to his spot, where he again leaned against the firehouse. He did not want to break up the protest; they were Americans, exercising their rights. Frank only wanted to protect the flag he had fought for in France and that his son was fighting for now, in Vietnam.

The chanting ceased, and the fists were lowered. Eyes darted back and forth between Frank and the red-haired stranger like an audience at Wimbledon. Neither made a move. Five minutes passed before everyone began to realize there would not be a fight. There would not be a martyr— or a bully. A man with long hair from the protesters’ group broke the silence with the strum of a guitar. The tense moment passed, replaced by the sound of voices singing antiwar songs. Onlookers began to disperse. The red-haired stranger, no longer the leader, became a participant and joined the peaceful demonstration.

The men at the firehouse resumed their smoking and philosophizing, but no one commented on Frank’s actions. Frank held on to the flag; he planned to put it back after the park was empty.

When the singing was done, the would-be flag burner crossed the street and approached the firehouse. The men sitting on the steps started to stand, ready to defend their own, but when they saw the protester’s face, they knew his approach was a white flag.

“I would like to put the flag back in the park,” was all the young man said.

Frank handed over the small vinyl flag. “Thank you,” he replied quietly.

Frank’s story spread quickly. A few days later, the Hudson newspaper ran an article about the incident and included a picture of Frank with an American flag. Marty’s sister clipped the article and picture and sent them to her brother in Vietnam.

The letter containing the article arrived in early fall. Marty slipped it and a short note out of the envelope. The picture of Frank and the flag immediately caught his attention. He read the article three times in a matter of minutes.

Marty shared the article with a few buddies, who told others, and soon all the soldiers in Marty’s company had heard about Marty’s father and the flag.

Frank’s act was a simple one, but it affected the young soldiers deeply. They had heard many stories of protests and riots in the States. They were even told not to wear their uniform home because of the negative attention it might bring. But the story of Frank saving one small flag made them realize some civilians supported them.

Marty carried the article in his helmet liner with his cigarettes for the remainder of his time in Vietnam. His father was not an articulate or emotional man, but the story reinforced what Marty already knew: Frank was proud of him and would always be behind him.

Stacy Havlik McAnulty

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