Small town. An average day. Nothing much special going on. When I walked out of the post office I could see Max’s snout poking out of the back window of my truck. He is a patient dog.
“I’ll be back in a few minutes. You sit tight.” This is my way of reassuring him that I’m not about to walk off the face of the earth and leave him orphaned.
He seems to appreciate this. “Okay.” He doesn’t really say anything, but I can hear it in his eyes.
As I walk across McDougald Ave. to my truck flipping through the envelopes in my hand, the wind almost takes my cap off my head. I catch the cap, but one envelope gets away from me. I leap at it like a crippled old Ninja and catch it under my boot. It’s a notice from the Georgia Department of Labor, which now has a dirty boot print over the face of the envelope. Oddly, that makes me smile.
I scratch Max on the head between the ears and open the driver’s door and step up to get in, but something catches my attention. A flapping sound that seems to be coming at me in Dolby surround sound. I’m on the step rail. One foot on the floorboard when I see it.
About 200 feet in front of me, rising up above the roof line of the store fronts, Old Glory is stretched out like a bed sheet holding on for dear life. The wind is tugging at every thread of her red, white and blue.
After a minute, I realize that I can hear a flapping that doesn’t belong to the flag I’m looking at. Behind me, right by the post office, there’s another flag. Down the street, yet another one over my other shoulder in front of the city office building. The morning sun is behind it a little bit and the wind is trying to rip it from the flagpole. I look back and forth between the three. A cobalt blue sky without a cloud in sight.
Still more flapping. This time there’s a pinging in the distance. Like the sound a rope makes banging against a flagpole. Then I see it. Across Chipley Street in front of the bank. Not as visible as the other three, but just as mesmerizing. I can see it through the branches and vibrant green of new spring leaves. It’s standing straight out, trembling like it’s being pulled at the stern of an aircraft carrier.
From one vantage point, four tributes to the land of purple mountain majesties on a bright blue ordinary day.
My throat tightens a little bit. Not sure why. Nothing like this was even on my mind when I left home today. I stand silent. Taking in the moment. Remembering the times I have seen those purple mountains in all their majesty. Thinking about the view from the edge of the Grand Canyon at the south rim. Standing at the top of Lookout Mountain in awe of the Tennessee River valley below me. Gazing up at Lincoln and Jefferson immortalized in the tidewater heart of our nation.
Jump back to 1893. Katherine Bates is standing on top of Pike’s Peak. She arrived here by train, rumbling her way through the wheat fields of Kansas. Maybe there was a flag fluttering in the wind that moved her. I can’t be sure. But I can understand why she shared her sentiment about this country with all of us when she wrote, “O beautiful for spacious skies . . . God shed His grace on thee.” Her song was on the ballot for our National Anthem in 1931. I might have voted “yes” had I been asked.
Back to the future. In front of where I’m parked there is a small war memorial. It stands in the shadow of the Pine Mountain water tower. I’m not pressed for time, so I walk up to the red brick wall to take a look at all the names embossed on brass plates for the sake of our memories. Hundreds of names. “Heroes proved”, Katherine would have called them. Men and boys from this small town “who more than self this country loved.”
I know a lot of these names. Cornett. Copeland. Askew. Jenkins. Kimbrough. McGhee. Strickland. Zachery. Culpepper. Myhand. Davenport. Cook. Hadley. King. Stripling. I have sat in church pews with some of them. I have traded business with them. I have fished in their ponds. I have been in their homes. I have their phone numbers in my contact list. Our tree farm is built on what used to be their land.
A weight of gratitude falls on me in this place. A realization that I live in a country where there are small towns in every corner of every state that have offered up their own sons and daughters; where freedom is not forgotten; where passion is stern; where nobleness matters; where mercy is loved more than life; and where liberty is undimmed by human tears.
A lot of people might say that this is just a steaming pile of monkey pooh. They might say that this country is upside down and falling apart at the seams. A lot of people would frown on, or maybe snicker at the words that Katherine Bates wrote. That liberty is not in law but in personal rights. America is not beautiful. America is broken.
They are wrong.
Every memorial in every small town cries out to differ. Every flag raised above every humble skyline is still willing to bleed red if called upon. Every name remembered is a testimony to the beauty of a country that has refused to die a hundred deaths.
The wind is still howling. The Stars and Stripes are still caught in a violent gale force flutter. It’s the kind of day that started out with just regular old stuff to do. Work to be done. Phone calls to make. Orders to fill. But it has become a day to remember.
Two other local names stand out on this wall of memories. Champion, and Bishop. Neither one served in the armed forces. Both died tragically as simple members of our brotherhood. One, a casualty of the terrorist attack on the Pentagon at 9:45 AM on September 11th, 2001. The other, slain on April 16, 2007 while teaching at Virginia Tech; “32 innocents dead”. One buried at Arlington. Neither one forgotten.
In a couple of weeks millions of flags, from sea to shining sea, will be on display. Front porches. City streets. Gas stations. Downtown diners. BBQ joints. Fire trucks. Hay barns. School yards. County baseball diamonds. Truck antennas. Motorcycle seats. And graveyards. Don’t forget the graveyards.
Every one of them flown because somebody thinks America is an awesome place to live. Each one lifted by the wind because someone remembers who we are and those who sacrificed to make days like this possible.
When Katherine Bates wrote the line, “God mend thine every flaw”, I assume she meant it as a prayer. For we are flawed. No argument there.. We are hurting. We are in need of mending.
But we are not broken. Not yet.
I know this, because from where I stand, America is still beautiful. Her flag is still waving.