9. Flag Waving for Beginners

9. Flag Waving for Beginners

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Forgiveness

Flag Waving for Beginners

Sometimes the poorest man leaves his children the richest inheritance.

~Ruth E. Renkel

A couple of months ago I came into my inheritance. It happened at my mother’s house in Laurel Springs, New Jersey as I played on the rug with my daughters. My sister, trailing behind her three teenage sons in a storm of hugs and fist bumps, threw a cardboard box on my lap. “What’s this?” I asked, and gave it a shake.

“Open it,” she said, and squeezed her nieces’ cheeks.

Out popped a laminated nautical map of the San Diego coast. A shotgun casing rattled inside a plastic box. Taking up the most room: an American flag, folded into a thick triangle. Our father, who died this past summer, had made arrangements to be buried at sea. The package came from the Neptune Society, one of many companies that offer cremation services and burials at sea and is often used by veterans.

My father and I had a complicated relationship, and we hadn’t seen each other for the past twenty years. My first reaction to this windfall was: What do I do with the flag?

Growing up, I idolized my father, Michael Nester, a Mensa card-carrying teamster from Arizona, which all seemed exotic to a boy growing up in South Jersey. I regarded Dad as a noble savage autodidact and aspired to be like him. Patriotism was how we bonded, even though I only half-understood what he was saying when he assigned me to read Ayn Rand and Voltaire and everyone in between. It was the Reagan era, and my dad was often hilarious expressing his patriotism. “Just give me three thousand G. Gordon Liddys,” he’d say, “and this country could take over the world.” We sneered at Dick Cavett when he interviewed Liddy on his talk show, and cheered on Ronald Reagan when he defeated Jimmy Carter. I drew stars and stripes on my book covers and notepads, and played with army men in the back yard with firecrackers.

Then things went sour. Dad was laid off, his company a casualty of the great 1980s recession. After years of money struggles, he got his job back, followed quickly by an affair for which my mother could never forgive him. Then he left New Jersey for Tucson, Arizona. I was seventeen, my sister sixteen. He never came back, not even to visit, never sent support checks or birthday cards. I was disillusioned.

In the intervening years, the flag became a vessel for what I would call my father’s antisocial feelings. He turned more right wing while I went moderate left. He bought guns and end-times supplies, and I moved to New York to be a poet and, eventually, an English professor. He ignored me; I resented him. Years go by much easier when there’s a country’s width between two people. Then a flag turns up on your lap.

My sister, who flew to Tucson to help empty his apartment, thought I should get the flag since I “was his firstborn son.” Do lines of succession rules still apply? I’ve never owned any flag, unless Phillies pennants or rainbow gay pride banners count. I’m not what you would call a flag-waver. And now that I had one, I felt more puzzled than partisan. What if I spilled something on it? Burnt it in the fireplace by accident? This debate turned into an allegory for my relationship with my country. Right-wingers like my father revere flags and distrust the government, while lefties like me find flag-waving an empty gesture and place more importance on public trusts. I was of the same mind as Samuel Johnson, who wrote that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

Back home, I’d hardly touched the flag outside of moving the cardboard box from pile to pile. Then I took the flag out and discovered something else in the cardboard box: a DVD. I put it in my laptop and was transported aboard the USS Comstock, behind a shaky camera. Boxes of sixteen service people’s ashes and sixteen flags lay on a table with a purple tablecloth.

This, it should be noted, marked the first time my father was ever out to sea. After he enlisted in 1965, he never served on a ship, didn’t go to Vietnam—a juvenile record, so the family story goes, kept him stateside. Instead, he worked at the Navy yards in Philadelphia, where he met my mother on Market Street, and then in Norfolk, Virginia, where I was born.

Though wind gusts had overwhelmed the microphone, I could still make out the words of the officers at the podium, a biography for each veteran whose ashes were returned to the sea. “Two tours in Vietnam.” “A chaplain for twenty-six years.” “Retired after twenty years.” “Dedication to family and friends.” “Instilled his love of the military in his children.” “Operational specialist World War II, given the Victory Medal.” “A gracious, caring and loving grandfather.”

My father’s turn came last. His dedicatory words were the most brief: “Michael Nester, born June 11, 1947, in Maryville, Tennessee. He treasured his time in the United States Navy, where he was honorably discharged and is proud and humbled to return to the sea.” Then, a sentence read very quickly that combined elements from the Navy Farewell with The Order for the Burial of the Dead: “farewell, fair winds and following seas unto almighty god we commit the soul with sure and certain hope of Jesus Christ and eternal life.” A whistle, and down the chute the box of my father’s ashes went. The ceremony ended with a twenty-one-gun salute. It hit me: this flag was my inheritance.

It’s not often when the compulsion to go to the hardware store arises, but recently it happened. Off to the local hardware store I went to purchase a flag bracket and pole. I inexpertly bolted it to the brick at the side of my house. The plan is to run the flag up a pole and let it flap in the wind until sundown this Flag Day. Then I will fold it back into a neat triangle. It won’t be that hard to do, and it’s the least I can do to make things right with my old man.

~Daniel Nester

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