I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America …
Susan sucks the ball of her thumb and tastes the saltiness of her skin mixed with the tanginess of the blood. For a moment, she looks at the finger she’s pricked, then picks up the needle and thread and returns to the stitching she started hours ago. The grandfather clock ticks in the parlor, in time with her beating heart. Her thoughts divide between the task before her and a continent she has never seen.
The house is Spartan, for she doesn’t need much since he’s been gone. All the dishes stand at attention in the sideboard and the silverware gleams brightly in its drawer. No dust disfigures the furniture, no cobwebs adorn the dark corners where the fire casts flickering shadows of orange and red. The rocking chair she sits in has worn the hardwood floor, even through the throw rug between the two.
Susan’s fingers deftly pull the needle through the tri-colored cloth and stretch it tight. She pays no attention to the mound of cloth in her lap or the old wooden chair creaking in response to each push of her legs. She does not need to look at the cloth; her eyes fasten on the flames in front
of her, their images dancing in her dark brown eyes. Rarely does she falter, like when she pricked her thumb; more often than not, her fingers pull and push through the cloth, her stitches even and tight.
Neither does Susan need to see the tri-folded piece of paper, with its top and bottom thirds open like the wings of a dead bird, resting on the varnished Victrola. Nor the emblem embossed on the top left corner of the single sheet, like the one she sewed on the sleeves of his shirts so many years ago. The paper’s contents have long ago been seared into her memory.
We are saddened to inform you…
She squeezes her eyes shut and a single tear courses down her cheek. The needle once again pricks her thumb. Numbly pulling out the sliver of steel, she unconsciously rethreads the eye of the needle and shifts the mound of cloth to work on a new section.
She tries to will herself to the present, to the task that lies before her. Her fingers have a mind of their own, however; her eyes mist and she slips back to years before. Years before – when she was a young girl and he a dashing example of manhood.
He walked into the soda shop and the bell over the front door jingled in response. Susan had seen him out of the corner of her eye and her mouth slipped off the straw of her milkshake. She coughed into her hand and snuck another peek at him. He deftly removed his hat and tucked it under his arm. He wore the uniform of the Navy proudly: his white shirt gleamed and his pants creased tightly. His gaze swung toward her and she caught her breath, only relaxing the tight grip on her glass when he continued to look around.
Susan hastily looked down at her lap as she sensed his weight settle into the stool next to hers. She looked for anything to do to calm herself and finally settled for sipping her milkshake. She concentrated on the simple act of drinking – inhale, swallow, exhale. She never heard his soft cough, nor his murmured question, not until he repeated it a little louder.
“Ma’am?” he asked, a soft Southern lilt in his deep voice.
“Would you like another one of those?” The inflection rose in his voice slightly and revealed a hint of teasing and affection. “I think that one’s just about had it.”
Susan looked into the glass for the first time since he had entered and realized that it had been empty for some time now, her straw merely making gurgling noises in the ice. She glanced up at him, embarrassed and awkward and shy, and was caught in his blue eyes that twinkled with secret laughter.
He held his hand out and smiled even more deeply.
“Peter Baynes, ma’am, nice to meet you.”
She touched his hand and jumped slightly as a pleasant tingle passed through her arm. She smiled back at him and mumbled something about it being nice to meet him, too.
Peter let her hand go – almost regretfully she thought – held up two fingers to the clerk behind the counter and nodded at her glass. A few minutes later, the clerk stepped up and put two fresh milkshakes in front of them. They both quietly sat there and sipped the ice-cold milk until he raised his head and smiled at her again. Her heart stuttered and beat faster.
“Haven’t we met before?” he asked.
“I want to say you went to St. Augustine’s as well, didn’t you?” She smiled shyly and nodded. “You were two grades above me…you graduated with my brother, Josh Hastings.”
“Yeah, good old Josh! I knew I had seen you before.You must be Susan, then.”
He smiled again at her and lightly brushed his hand against her arm as he shifted his weight.
“Yes, I’m Susan.” Another electric shock went through her.
He tilted his glass up and swallowed the last of his milkshake. She
hadn’t even noticed that he was done and felt her stomach drop as he got to his feet and paid the clerk.
Peter turned back to her and patted her hand softly.
“Thanks for letting me buy you another shake, Susan. Tell Josh I said hello if you get a chance.”
She watched him put his cap back on his head, align it and walk towards the front door. She let her eyes fall to her lap and waited for the jingle of the door’s bell, but heard his voice one more time.
She looked up and he was different somehow, more human. He scuffed the edge of his toe against the floor.
“Do you think I…well, I might be able to stop by and see you next week? Maybe just chat?”
Her heart leaped back in its proper place and pounded away. She nodded slightly, but didn’t trust her voice to say the actual words. He didn’t seem to mind though as his smile grew wide and his eyes twinkled. He opened the door, but paused again.
“OK … OK, I’ll see you then, Susan.” He smiled one last time and walked out the door.
The flames in the fireplace twinkle like Peter’s eyes always did, but there is no mirth there, no secret joke that only the two of them shared. Susan only feels the cold heat that does little to warm her fingers as they continue their journey through the mound of cloth. She pulls the needle out for good and sets it down on the mahogany end table, its blue thread hanging like a tail. She stares into the cloth and vainly tries to pry the secret of what has happened from its silent folds.
Susan stands slowly and lets the fold of cloth fall from her as she grasps two sides. She spreads the cloth before her and takes a flash of plea- sure from her neat stitching. Her pleasure is dampened almost immediately by the sight of the blood-red stripes evenly spaced with the cold white ones. The white stars also seem to reflect her future in their stolid, solitary placement on a sea of navy blue.
He will have me by his side. Before my God allows me to join him, my work will rest with him, folded and tight, just as my heart.
Susan notices little Matthew standing in the doorway to the room. His bright blue eyes are like his father’s, though there is no joy in them now either. She puts the flag away and motions him to her. He climbs in her lap and curls there, her arms wrapped around his body. He’s almost too big for her to do this anymore, but neither of them seems to care. She sings a soft lullaby as they watch the dancing flames.
…and to the Republic for which it stands…
Matthew Baynes sits in the hardwood pew, listens to the names of men and women he never knew and he remembers…
The boy fidgeted in the long vinyl car seat, his small hands resting on the twin seat in front of him. He swiveled his head to look out the long side window. The van sat in front of two concrete pillars, a right turn away from the Silver Strand that connected Imperial Beach to Coronado. They had driven north up the Strand, the San Diego Bay on the right and the much grander Pacific Ocean on the left. The small boats in the bay and the intermittent lifeguard towers had held the boy’s attention before, but now they were nowhere to be seen.
The boy pushed himself up on the seat, sighed and watched three men in uniform march to the long metal pole near the gate. The boy shift- ed again and wanted to be out of the close confines of the van, running on the beach. The fireworks would start as soon as night fell and the family had come to the military base to celebrate. If they sat there much longer, however, the fireworks might start without them. The boy looked at his father in the captain’s chair and sighed again, louder this time.
The boy’s father ignored him. Peter Baynes was a big man, at least to the boy, with large hands that bore small and various scars. The boy had learned that his father’s temper was not one to test; those large hands had spanked the boy many a time in his short life. The boy’s father sat, silent and rapt, like the people outside the van, his gaze also on the fluttering flag.
Movement and sound drew the boy’s attention away from his father. The middle man of the three raised a bugle to his lips and played mournful notes. The sound made the boy slightly uneasy for reasons he didn’t know. He watched the men outside salute crisply, their straight hands held tight to the brim of their caps or their foreheads. He looked back at the pole and watched the flag slowly come down, almost in time to the beat of the bugle’s song.
But it was too slow for the boy, his desire to be out of the van fighting with the silence inside.
“Can’t we just go now?!?”
He knew instantly from the thicker silence in the van that he had done something terribly wrong.
“Shut your trap right now!”
The boy’s father reached behind him and grabbed the boy’s shirt in a fist. He dragged the boy over the seat and threw him down onto it. The boy’s father slapped the side of the boy’s head – slapped it hard – and pushed him back onto the seat. The boy gasped at the explosion of pain and barely heard his father’s tirade.
“You’ll show some damn respect! We’ll move this car when I say we will.”
The boy’s vision tripled and tears coursed down his cheeks. Six men now folded the flag neatly and the bugle’s song ended. The boy looked out the window and watched the other men drop their salutes and return with their families to walk to the beach. The boy sniffled, rubbed his head and moped silently as his father pulled the gearshift into drive and moved forward to the gate.
The man who stood in front of the small house to the side snapped a quick salute as the van drove onto the base. Returning the salute, the boy’s father drove to the beach area and parked between two other cars, facing the sand. He turned in his seat and reached one arm around the headrest. He stared at the boy long and hard. The boy drew his head into his shoulders and looked at the van floor, unable to meet his father’s eyes.
“Matthew, don’t you ever speak during something like that again or I’ll really give you something to cry about.”
The quietness in the man’s voice scared the boy more than his explosion of anger had. His father turned around, opened the driver’s door and stepped out of the car.
The boy jumped out the sliding door as soon as it opened, ran away from the van and wiped tears from his cheeks. He hated his father without even knowing the emotion. He did not run far, but far enough so he could not be bothered. The boy couldn’t understand why he had been punished.
Was it because of that song? Was it because of the men with the flag? The boy sat and doodled in the sand, the smell of hot dogs and ham- burgers slowly reaching him. He grew hungry and reluctantly made his way back to van to eat with his mother and father.
When night fell and the fireworks exploded deep in the blue-black sky, the boy oohed and ahhed with the rest of the crowd. For now, he had forgotten about the flag and his father’s reaction.
…one Nation under God, indivisible…
Matthew Baynes enters the small church and dips the first two fin- gers of his right hand into the bowl directly behind the door. He makes the Sign of the Cross and his eyes look through the glass of the interior doors into the nave of the church. Matt pulls one interior door to him and steps inside, quiet and respectful of the priest reciting prayers at the altar. Matt steps into the second-to-last pew, pulls the kneeler down softly and falls to his knees. He clasps his hands before him, closes his eyes and silently offers his own prayers.
“Amen,” he finishes softly, and sits back in the pew. He studies the statues and stained glass windows around him. His eyes wander through the Stations of the Cross, embossed on wood and plaster above every fourth or fifth pew, that detail Jesus’ crucifixion. Matt’s gaze rests on the fifth Station, where Simon helps Jesus carry the cross.
I could use some of that help myself.
The priest draws Matt’s attention as he genuflects in front of the tabernacle, turns and faces the nave for the first time. Clad in a white stole over the traditional black pants and shirt of the Catholic clergy, the priest walks unhurriedly down two steps to the first pew. He stops to pat the hand of the only other person in the church this late morning, an old lady with a white lace kerchief on her head.
The priest continues to his left and walks halfway down the pews. He stops and opens the middle door of three, steps inside and gently closes the door behind him. Matt watches the elderly lady follow the priest, open the first wooden door and step inside as well. A small green light blinks on over the old lady’s door a few seconds later.
Matt turns his attention to the church before him. The smell of wood, candle, and incense surrounds him and invokes a melancholy feeling. He steps out of the pew and walks slowly down the middle aisle. Genu-
flecting as he reaches the front of the church, Matt turns right and steps in front of the statue of the Virgin Mary. Five rows of eight candles each, some unlit but some flickering, stand in front of the statue adorned with small flowers.
Matt deposits a quarter in a small wooden box to the left of the statue, picks a long wax wick out of a small vase and lights the wick from a nearby candle. Lighting the dark candle next to the one whose flame he borrowed, Matt kneels again and murmurs an “Our Father.”
“May the souls of the faithfully departed rest in peace. Amen.” Matt’s right hand crosses his shoulders to make another Sign of the Cross.
“…and Peter Baynes, too, my Lord.”
Matt rises from the kneeler and hears a door softly open and close. He turns around and sees the elderly lady now in a pew, her head down and lips moving in an almost silent litany. Matt slowly walks down the side aisle until he reaches the third door in the set. With his hand on the doorknob, Matt pauses.
Will this really help? He stares at his hand for a long minute and turns the knob before he can change his mind.
Matt steps into the small room and shuts the door behind him. As he kneels on the small kneeler in front of a heavily screened window, he hears a soft click and knows that the green light above his door has blinked on as well. After a few seconds, Matt sees the partition in front of his screen slide open. He can barely see the priest’s form through the screen, his presence defined merely as a darker shadow behind the mesh.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been…” Matt searches his memory for the last time he felt anything strong enough to warrant stepping inside a church again. “It’s been a while since my last confession.”
“That’s all right, son.” The priest’s voice is low and soothing, as if it’s been cultured by the numerous sins that it’s consoled.
“The Lord is there for you whether you know Him or not. How can He aid you this day?”
The words pour out of Matt’s lips before he realizes it. “Father, I don’t know if this is the place I need to go or not. It’s not a sin that has me concerned…it’s more a choice.”
Matt rises partly off the kneeler and clenches his hands. “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea.”
“Please, stay and share your problem with me.” Matt senses more than sees the priest’s head lean closer to his side of the screen.
“The confessional is for more than just absolution of a litany of wrongdoings. It’s for God’s children to use whenever they have a crisis.” The priest pauses, maybe feeling Matt settle down again on the kneeler.
“For you, your crisis may certainly be one of choice. Now tell me just what it is that causes you such distress.”
Matt stares at his hands on the small shelf under the screen. He starts in a low voice, slow at first, but gains rhythm as he unburdens himself.
“Father … you’re right, I do have a choice. I have to choose whether I follow a symbol my father believed in. A symbol that not only he died for, but many more men have before and after him. A symbol that I’m now being asked to maybe die for, or at least risk my life for in a land I’ve never known.
“But I don’t know why!” Matt looks beseechingly through the partition and wishes he could see the priest’s face. “I know my father felt the need to fight and die for that cloth, for that flag. I just never thought to ask him what made him do it. I was too young…I only knew that it was his job, his duty…as my mother always said.”
Matt lowers his head on his hands and feels lightened by the emo- tional release. He’d always wished for a chance to ask his father why he made the decisions he did, why he left his wife and young son. The priest clears his throat and Matt raises his eyes to the small window.
“Son, your father made his choice just as you must make yours. That cloth you speak of, that symbol of the country we live in, embodied something deeply felt in him, I’m sure.”
“Maybe it was pride, pride that he was a free man, free to raise his son as he was raised.”
“Or maybe it was loyalty, loyalty to those same men before him, who chose the harder path and never did come home to their sons and wives either.”
Matt listens to the priest’s soft breathing and closes his eyes. For the first time in a long time, he can feel his father in him. Not as the man who disciplined him, not as the man who sometimes had scared him, but as a man faced with the same tough decisions that any man faces. Dad, you made your mistakes…God knows…but you did your best. Matt’s attention comes back to the present as the priest speaks again.
“What your father did, he did on faith. Faith in the country that needed him and the God that stands behind that country. Your father’s belief is what sustained him through any tough times…or tough decisionshe may have faced. Now, you must decide how strong your belief is in what he taught you – how to live, how to be a man.”
“But, Father, what is that? What is it to be a man?” Matt lifts his eyes to the screen and stumbles on.
“I mean, so many things are different now than when he was alive. It seems like everything was so much easier and black and white back then. Now, it’s hard to figure out what the best thing to do is.”
Matt hears the priest’s voice grow stronger. “Son, there is one rule that is always inviolate, always true. Some have called it the Golden Rule…do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If you want to be treated a certain way, how can you expect that if you treat others differently or worse than what you want? Your father taught you certain things; I know that without even having met him. Your crisis of conscience tells me that alone.” The priest stops to let his words sink in.
“Even if you don’t realize it, your father has given you the answer that you need. Just trust in that teaching like he trusted in his before.”
Matt nods, even though he knows the priest probably can’t see it. “Yes, Father, you’re right. He did teach me things even in the short time we were together. He taught me respect and responsibility. Respect for my fellow man and responsibility for being a member not only of this country, but of humanity.”
Matt feels the tears well up in his eyes, but refuses to let them fall. “And maybe he taught me the most important thing of all – that the tough decisions have to be made, even when no answer is the best one.”
The priest sat silently on his side of the partition.
“I may not have liked some of the things my father did and I sure don’t understand some of them,” Matt continued. “But he did what he thought was best…for my mother and for me.”
Now I have to do what I think is best. Matt peers again through the heavy screen at the priest’s shadowy bulk. “Thank you, Father, this has helped me.”
Before he rises, Matt smiles at a memory of confessions during his youth. “How many Our Fathers or Hail Marys do I need to say now?”
The priest chuckles at Matt’s sarcasm. “None, my boy, you need no act of contrition. Just take what your father has given to you and use it the best way you can. That alone will be enough to do God’s will.”
Matt smiles and bows his head as the priest says the final prayer. “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, amen.”
Matt rises off the kneeler, opens the door and blinks at the change in light. He stops and wants to say something more to the priest, some personal thanks so the man will know he really has helped. However, Matt thinks the priest already knows that.
Matt knows that he will follow in his father’s footsteps and protect those who need protection. The beliefs his father has instilled in him are all the faith that he’ll need. Simply put, it’s the right thing to do.
Matt slowly walks down the center aisle and dips his first two fingers once again in the bowl of holy water. He steps out into the sunlight and hears the sturdy oak door close firmly behind him.
…with liberty and justice for all.
Matt rises from the hardwood pew, the memorial service fin- ished, and follows his fellow police officers in a single file line through the church. Outside, he adjusts his uniform hat low to his eyes and joins them in double and triple ranks that flank the doors. He glances down at the sin- gle black band that covers his badge and back up at the officers from across the state who have joined together to celebrate the cost of what they do.
A strong command resounds from behind him.
“Officers … attennn-shunn!!”
Matt salutes crisply and holds his arm tight out to his right; all the
fingers in his hand are locked straight to the outside tip of his eyebrow. He holds that salute, just like the military taught him, sees it mirrored in front of him, and feels it behind him. He focuses his attention on doing it right. Matt knows it’s important to show the proper respect for his fallen comrades, even if he never knew them. Respect is respect, as his father once said.
Men and women start to slowly walk out of the church, down into the courtyard in front of the tall steeple. They are the ones who were left behind by their sons’ their daughters’, their husbands’, their wives’, their fathers’ and their mothers’ beliefs. All somber, dressed in black or dark navy blue, these people are the ones Matt swore to serve and protect.
The honor guard follows the family members out. Three officers, each from a separate division of law enforcement, march in perfect time. The two officers on the sides grasp heavy wooden poles seated in small metal holders latched around their waists. The one on the right, farthest away from Matt, displays the state flag proudly. The flag on the left, however, is the one that captures Matt’s total attention as it slowly goes past. The familiar red, white and blue raises a feeling in him that he has never been able to quite explain.
As the guard passes through the rank of officers, Matt’s mind drifts to what that one piece of cloth has meant to people. He swore his oath to that flag, an oath to a sense of duty that he’d never even known until he was older. His father swore his own special oath to it as well, perhaps un- der the same sense of duty that he instilled in Matt. Matt finds himself still questioning exactly what it is he feels when he sees that flag. What he does know is that it means something important to him, something that makes him the man he is today.
The guard makes its way to the end of the assembled officers and turns crisply away. The officers stand there, each lost in their own thoughts or memories. Another authoritative command rings out.
“Officers ……. at ease!”
Everyone drops their salutes as one and Matt watches as officers from the same agency congregate or ones who’ve worked together in the past exchange handshakes and greetings. He walks through the courtyard alone and gazes out at the tall elm and birch trees that line the U-shaped road in front of the chapel.
Nothing has changed today… Matt still doesn’t know exactly what it is that makes that flag so important to him, or why it raises such a strong reaction in him. He does know, however, that his life and how he lives it are forever intertwined with the sense of duty and responsibility that it embodies.
Matt looks back at the chapel, his eyes lose focus, and he remem- bers his father. He shakes his head softly and rearranges the cap on his head. For you, Dad. I may not understand why you did what you did, but sometimes I don’t think I need to.
Matt turns and walks down the side of the road to head back to his patrol car. He opens the door, takes off his cap and slides into the seat. Matt starts the engine of the gleaming patrol car and shifts it into gear. He watches the steeple grow smaller in his rearview mirror and he returns to his life, his duty.