The Price of Flags

As a child, Memorial Day signaled the start of summer. Most of the time it announced that the obligations of school were nearly over and that was sufficient cause to celebrate. It was not until well into adulthood that I realized the holiday commemorated those who’d died in the armed services. I’d noticed the flags in cemeteries, of course, and we often visited the graves of civilian ancestors buried close enough to reach. The message did not penetrate my head, however, that all of those little flags should be telling me something. I grew up not knowing my father, but I did know he was a veteran. When all his children gathered for a (mostly) impromptu picnic yesterday, for the first time in well over thirty years, I realized how much of a mystery he was to me. At his funeral the flag on his coffin was presented to my older brother as part of military tradition, although he had died in peacetime, and pretty much isolated from all his progeny. It is a somber thought even now, although it was eleven years ago.

I have been a pacifist since my youngest days. Sure, I played with toy guns and G. I. Joe, but that was the culture of kids growing up during the Vietnam War. Only vaguely did we realize the actual horrors that were happening daily thousands of miles away. In my mind there was no reason to go to war. In Sunday School we were taught to settle our differences nicely, even if it meant that you had to be cheated or take less for yourself. This always seemed the central tenet of Christianity to me, and I wondered why the most conservative of Christian presidents seemed the most hawkish, the most ready to sacrifice the fathers, sons, brothers, and now mothers, sisters, and daughters of others for so little. The number of flags even in that little country graveyard where my grandparents were buried haunt me.

We still have members of the armed forces over seas. The military budget of one of the most prosperous nations on the planet is astronomical. We can now kill with drones so that we don’t even have to see the carnage we create. When did the lives of young adults become small change? I know it’s idealistic of me, and probably terribly naive, but I still can’t make sense of our cultural perception of how cheap human life can be. Maybe I’m just a little overly sentimental about a father I never really knew. But looking over my siblings, I see that he produced some nice, generous, and peace-loving children over half a century ago. And while we have our picnics and enjoy a rare day off of work or school, thousands of silent flags will be flapping in cemeteries all across this country reminding us that better ways exist to resolve our differences. If only we could take a holiday from war and violence we might see fewer flags and even more holidays.

Photo credit: Remember.

Photo credit: Remember.

A Toy Story

As a life-long pacifist, it might seem strange that I find myself waxing sentimental over a military-themed toy. You see, I just found out that G. I. Joe is turning fifty. For those of us who grew up in the 1960s, G. I. Joe was the acceptable “boy doll” (now, technically, “action figure”) that all the guys had. Some of us had several. We didn’t have much money, but Christmas always gave an opportunity to accessorize Joe with either the latest developments (life-like hair in a buzz cut, pull-string vocalizations, “kung-fu grip”) or the many vehicles that could be purchased separately. As the Vietnam War wore on, Joe turned his interests to science and humanitarian causes, but boys like to anthropomorphize as much as girls do, and Joe continued to get himself into many bizarre adventures. At least in our apartment he was known for fighting dinosaurs, robots, medieval knights, and even General George Custer. Joe was a fighting kind of guy. He had guns and gear and shoes that were almost impossible to remove when you wanted to change uniforms (only when Mom was out of the room). So G. I. Joe has been around for half a century now. I can’t remember childhood without him.

G. I. Joe often had near fatal encounters in our home. One of them, the talking one with life-like hair, suffered a severe war wound that left his bottom half completely dissociated from his top. I don’t think we kept the lower abdomen and legs—there was something slightly unnerving about plastic buttocks—but I did keep his top half, the talking bit. It shocked me when my Mom asked if she could take him to church. We were a “Bible believing” family since it was the days before people much talked about Fundamentalists. My mother was a Sunday School teacher. (Thus my early amazement at the magic of flannelgraphs, still primarily used for religious teaching.) We didn’t believe in evolution, and we certainly thought war was a bad thing. I did wonder, though, why Mom wanted to take a toy to church, particularly a dismembered, violent one.

Being the son of the teacher did have some perks. I knew enough to read my Bible and learn the lessons, but we were not given sneak previews for Sunday School. Seeing the trailer might make actually attending superfluous. So when Joe went to church I learned why: people are not animals. The pull-string voice box, although the sounds emerged from holes in his perforated chest, was proof. People talk, animals don’t. We didn’t evolve after all. The other kids were seemingly impressed by my evangelistic Joe. Who would’ve thought that “G. I. Joe, U.S. Army, reporting for duty” could have ever converted a lost soul? On Ebay, I see, some of these vintage talkers can fetch up to $600. Mine, I’m sure, ended up in a landfill somewhere in rural Pennsylvania where, I have no doubts, he is still preaching to the other toys about the dangers of evolution.

The ultimate adventure...

The ultimate adventure…