California Forum

Yes, Memorial Day is about wartime. But here’s a Memorial Day story about peace

An American flag marks the Memorial Day holiday on homes across the country.
An American flag marks the Memorial Day holiday on homes across the country. Fresno Bee file photo

My father always put out the American flag on national holidays. Come Memorial Day, Labor Day or July 4th, he would pull the flag out of the family room closet in the morning, unfurl it and place it in its holder in front of the house.

My father didn’t salute the flag or make a big deal out it, he just went about his business, making sure to take it in at nightfall.

To my father, putting out the flag was a sign of respect for these men who had given their lives for the country. But you can’t put it out, I told him. It means you’re supporting the war.

But now I was in high school, and the Viet Nam War was raging. The flag had become more than the symbol of the country. It had been adopted by the right, and it stood for support for the war.

If you saw a flag decal plastered on someone’s car, it meant the driver supported the government’s policy, and it often was accompanied by the bumper sticker “America, Love It or Leave It.” Memorial Day was coming, and I was becoming more vocal about my anti-war politics.

I vehemently insisted to my father that he couldn’t put out the flag. This didn’t become a fight over the war – he had contributed to anti-war candidates and had marched in anti-war protests, and he knew what the flag stood far. But he felt he was a patriot, too, and he had a right to put out the flag regardless of who had adopted it as a symbol.

He was the son of immigrants who had left Poland because of the constant threat of violent anti-Semitism. He had prospered in the U.S. He and his four brothers had served in World War II, and all came back unscathed.

My father had enlisted a month before Pearl Harbor and served 4½ years on a subchaser, which he described as the smallest and least maneuverable ship in the Navy.

“We’d go out looking for Japanese subs, and if we saw one, we’d drop depth charges and hope our bombers and destroyers would show up before the sub blew us out of the water,” he said.

My father didn’t speak much about his time in the service, just a few stories, like the day he spent on shore leave only to return to the ship to learn that a secret weapon had been used on Hiroshima. “They just dropped a bomb on Japan and the buildings are still shaking,” one of his shipmates told him.

While my father and his brothers had come back from the war unhurt, my father had friends who were killed and wounded, along with hundreds of thousands of others. My mother once told me that if my parents had another kid, the baby would have been named after a friend of my father’s who had been killed.

To my father, putting out the flag was a sign of respect for these men who had given their lives for the country. But you can’t put it out, I told him. It means you’re supporting the war.

My father was insistent. I suggested we fly the flag upside down, a distress signal. My father vetoed that idea.

How about if we bought a flag with a peace sign instead of stars? He didn’t like that one, either, but we were getting closer.

We finally came up with a compromise. We put the flag up in its usual spot, tucked into a bracket on the side of garage, next to a window, facing the street.

Then we bought a large green peace sign that we placed inside the window. Anyone seeing the flag would have to spot the anti-war symbol next to it. And so, in wartime, we achieved a mutual peace.

My father continued putting out the flag long after I had left home. The peace sign disintegrated eventually.

My father died three years ago. But the wars have continued. Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria. I think of him now, as another Memorial Day approaches. I wonder if families in this cultural wartime will reconcile so easily.

Jeff Gottlieb is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and a former Los Angeles Times staff writer. Reach him at jpgottlieb@gmail.com.

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