This is a guest post by my friend John Raskauskus. His observations and reflections on our country—past and present—offer a unique perspective on the America he remembers when he was growing up, our troubled present, and a hoped-for-future.
On Tuesday (4/20/21), I was driving home and listening to news about the guilty verdicts in the trial of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd. I was also watching a lifted diesel truck a few cars ahead of me, towering above the neighboring cars and “rolling coal” to run the yellow light and speed well beyond the 25mph limit in our 3-stoplight town. A large yellow “don’t tread on me” flag and a slightly smaller American flag were rigged to fly side by side in the bed of the truck above the diesel exhaust and noise imposed on surrounding motorists. I watched the flags snapping in the wind under a clear blue sky as the truck rounded the bend beyond the intersection.
By the time the light turned green again, my mind had returned to George Floyd, a Black man callously sentenced to a terrible death by white Officer Chauvin, in response to a minor criminal offense. If I tried to pass a fake $20 bill like George did and got caught, I’d expect a trial, a fine, and perhaps the shame of a mugshot in the police report of the local newspaper’s website. My kids would suffer the embarrassment for a criminal father, but not mourn his violent death.
A mile further on, I saw a sheet blowing along the road as cars passed over and around it. As I got closer, I recognized it was the flag from the truck. I avoided it and continued driving for about 10 seconds before pulling over. I clicked on the caution lights and watched the flag in the rear-view mirror as it fluttered into the ditch. I got out and walked back to the spot, then down the rocky embankment. The rivets were torn out, the edges were tattered, and the fabric was dirty from the road. I picked it up and began to fold it. First in half, in half again, then from the outer to inside edge, repeated triangular folds, finally tucking the inner edge, leaving the blue field with white stars.
I know how to fold a flag because my grandfather and my parents taught me how. My grandfather saluted this flag through a lifetime of undiagnosed PTSD from World War II. My father also served as a Navy pilot in the 60s and 70s. I believe my mother served equally, though her service went unrecognized. She willingly uprooted her life every time the Navy required a move, driving belongings across the continent while my Dad’s squadron flew to the new base or carrier. She worked, maintained a home, supported whatever community she found herself in, and worried about my Dad. Crashes and deaths were not uncommon among his colleagues. In the present, my wife and my brother are both teachers. The work they do is at least as important to the future of our country as anything my parents or grandparents did, and this year is the most difficult year they have ever had.
I stood in the ditch holding the flag, considering these family connections, but also considering George Floyd, Derek Chauvin, the fearful man driving the $75,000 lifted truck, the unhealed wounds and ongoing injury from a system that subtly elevates a man like me, and not so subtly holds a man like George Floyd down. I thought about this past year of pandemic, a re-awakening of purpose-driven protests and political engagement, but also outrage and riots, fires and smoke. I thought about my relative who is a Portland Police Officer. He’s a good man and takes pride in serving the community, but he is exhausted from a year where he’s been pelted by rocks and screamed at by people intent on breaking the same downtown windows over and over again. His wife worries about him too.
I held the flag and remembered when the honor guard at Willamette National Cemetery handed one folded the same way to my Dad at his father’s funeral. An inherited symbol not big enough to hold all the meaning ascribed to it. Meaning that has gotten more complicated as the country and I grow older. Tattered around the edges, but still holding vast potential if we can learn and take responsibility for our mistakes, remembering to listen and look each other in the eye. Giving those in need a hand up instead of holding them down. Making this country better instead of just saying it’s the best. That would be meaningful.
I decided the flag is for George and took it home.