Proof Through the Night

I still remember a dream I had when I was about five years old. In the dream, I was floating in the sky, and I came upon a cloud, white and fluffy, with an American Flag somehow planted in it.  Seeing the flag confirmed in my mind that I was in fact in Heaven.

That was about fifty five years ago now and I’m struck by how powerful, even at that early age, the image of the stars and stripes was.  These days the flag and its meaning are being debated, as links between sports and politics have blurred, and the right to protest the flag is being questioned.

To those who say politics don’t have any place on a football or baseball field or basketball court, answer this one question:  why does every sporting event, from high school on up, start with saluting the flag and singing the anthem, if politics have no place there? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to these things. It’s just that the flag is a symbol, a very powerful symbol that evokes strong, politically charged responses in everyone in attendance. But why are they even a part of the event?  We don’t play the anthem and salute the flag in a movie theatre, for example.

Inserting the flag into an event instantly politicizes that event. Taking a knee or clenching arms or raising a fist to the flag does not disrespect the flag, rather, it strengthens what the flag really stands for.

One of the things that always set us apart from extremists in other cultures was that in America, we hold principals in higher regard than symbols. No one is supposed to suffer punishment in America for drawing a cartoon, for example.  Or for, no matter how repellent the sight might be, burning an American flag.  It’s our constitutional right to free speech that we obey, as well as it’s the right of others to decry such activities. But we don’t have the right to discriminate against those we disagree with.

In America, we are allowed, even encouraged, to think for ourselves.  So when we see our flag, it’s only natural, and downright patriotic, for different people to think different things. Imagine if we were all forced to think the same way –imagine the ramifications of that.  Who would decide what we have to conform to? Or what the punishment would be if our thoughts strayed?

There’s no denying the strength of the flag as a symbol. I understand the power of the meaning it has, especially to our military.  But to truly appreciate the complexity as well as the power of the symbol is a bit more difficult. If you want an idea of how, even among the military, the flag can have different symbolic meanings, all you need do is google Ira Hayes.

Hayes’ experiences after returning home from World War II, where he was one of the marines who famously rose the flag at Iwo Jima, add a level of complexity to the simplistic symbol of the flag. This is inevitable with symbols – the more they are universally embraced, the simpler their meaning becomes, despite the fact that symbols are by nature inherently complex.

What makes the flag such a complex thing is part of the very foundation our country was built upon: liberty, freedom and justice for all. It’s the great American experiment, and it’s what sets us apart from every other country in history:  that we are guaranteed the right to say what we want, think what we want, worship whatever god we choose. All men are created equal and self-evident truths and inalienable rights. It was all incredibly audacious and radical and idealistic, and the flag came to symbolize every bit of it – all of the purity and sincerity of those ideals, as well as all the times we fell short – because only if we recognize battles lost and not just celebrate those won will we ever rise up to the lofty heights our founding fathers envisioned us one day approaching.  I think they probably knew we’d never reach them all, that that would be impossible, but hoped that we’d fight with every breath in our resolve to at least try.

That’s the fight and the struggle that the flag is symbolic of.  It flies as high as the surface of the moon, but we still have a way to go before we reach the unreachable, until we plant it in the fluffy clouds of a child’s dream of Heaven.

The Green Blood of Death

(From a dream I had after eating a bag of pistachios after nine o’clock …)

My wife and I still live, alone and happy, in the same big two story house we raised our three children in. It’s really too big for just the two of us, and at some point, when we’re further into our later years, we’ll downsize and move into something smaller. People shrink as they age, as they diminish, making things like houses and cars seem even bigger and more imposing. But for now, our home is the same house we’ve occupied for the past 34 years.

The two of us were asleep in our bed in the master bedroom on the far side of the upper level, when I was awakened by our dog, a Gordon setter named Max, thirteen years old but still fit and vital. It was just a single distant yelp, probably directed at a squirrel or one of the great horned owls that have taken up residency in the hollowed-out cedar tree in our side yard. I was surprised I could even hear Max, given that it was just a single yelp from the other end of the lower level of the house. But then I could smell the presence of another, my long-time nemesis, through the furnace vents, and I knew it was him, that he’d transformed himself into a vapor and that within a minute or so he’d be in our room, standing over our bed, ready to take us.

I quickly shook my wife by her shoulders.  “Deb,” I said, low enough so only she could hear me. “Wake up.”

“Arfglub,” she murmured, still sleeping.

“Deb,” I said, “he’s here.”

“Oh, shit,” she said, ripping the blankets off of her and getting out of bed on her side at the same time I got out on mine. We both kicked into gear and quickly and quietly executed what we’d been practicing for the past four weeks, since the last time.   We both grabbed the stuffed pillows we kept stashed under the bed and used them to replace us in bed, pulling the blankets over them. Then we ducked into the bathroom that was attached to the master bedroom.  I turned off the overhead light we always used as a night light so I could find my way without stumbling over anything on my way to one of my several nightly trips to relieve myself, and we hid in the walk-in shower stall, behind the tiled walls, still in our night clothes, me in my boxer briefs and a t-shirt, Deb in her panties and t-shirt.

Sure enough, about only thirty seconds after getting in the shower, we heard the door of our bedroom creak open, and we could hear the soft shuffle of his feet across our hardwood floor. Then we could hear him, from the side of our bed, reciting some poem, I couldn’t understand it because it was all in Latin, over what he thought was the form of our sleeping beings. Then, the poem apparently over, he started laughing that diabolical laugh of his. I wanted to see this so I crept behind the half-opened bathroom door and through the crack between the hinges, I watched as his torch ignited.  In the light from the torch, I could see him clearly, his face wrinkled and green, with dark cavities where his eyes were supposed to be, his black robe over his head and falling to the floor.  A long and wrinkled arm reached out from under his robe, and I could see his bony fingers reach down and grab the corner of the blankets.  Grinning that maniacal grin of his, he pulled back the blankets to reveal nothing but the inert and lifeless pillows.

He gasped, making an audible hissing sound, and clenched his bony fingers into a green fist.  “Curse you, Gourdoux!” he said, shaking his fist down towards the pillows.

I couldn’t help but laugh from my vantage point behind the bathroom wall.  He spun and turned towards me, hissing loudly.

“So, Gourdoux,” he said, “you have outwitted me again. I must pay you my dues.”

“Never mind that,” I said, unable to control the laughter erupting from deep down inside of me. “For something as scary as Death is supposed to be, you are just ridiculous.  Oh, and by the way, just a friendly fashion tip:  lose the robe. They haven’t worn those since the Spanish Inquisition.”

“Ah, enjoy yourself, Gourdoux.  For well you know, you may have won this round, but I most certainly will triumph when the match is over.”

“That’s what you think,” I said, adding as I reached into my boxer briefs and pulled out my Smith and Wesson. “It seems that you’re forgetting, Wisconsin is now a Castle state.”

“A gun!” he gasped. “I thought you were just happy to see me.”

“I am,” I said. “I’m happy to see you dead. Now I lay you down to sleep.” I raised the sites of my .45 and fired three times.

There, by my bedside, Death lay in a pool of green blood.

I cracked open a pistachio as I dialed the police on my cell phone.