"Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag - if they do, there must be consequences - perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!" – Donald Trump, Nov. 29, 2016
Once upon a Fourth of July I had an idea: burn the American flag.
It came to me after I bought a bag of small paper flags in a grocery store. These accoutrements of patriotism, affixed to toothpicks, were meant for hamburgers. I noticed that with just a little twisting, I could loosen and remove the toothpicks. In their place I inserted thin wooden matchsticks. The paper flags were thus attached to a means of ignition.
I got busy and made a few dozen of these American fireflags. It would be funny, I thought, to pass them out at random to see what happened, but I was too chicken to actually do it. I might just hand one to a Marine in civvies and get the shit kicked out of me. Gabrielle, though, said it would be a strong political statement and an opportunity for street theater – a trendy notion she picked up somewhere. She looked at me with beady little eyes. “We gotta do this!”
So the next day we drove downtown with a bag full of fireflags. We stationed ourselves along a busy sidewalk and began stopping people at random, offering them flags. Sooner or later, we figured, someone would explode. We had prepared remarks for anyone who reacted strongly – dialog for Gabrielle’s street theater – but were leaving what happened after that to chance.
When half an hour passed and nothing much had taken place, I began to think we had miscalculated. A few people accepted the fireflags, while others smiled curtly but otherwise ignored us. Then these two guys came along, young guys in business suits. Both stopped abruptly.
“What the hell is this?” the guy nearest me cried out.
“A flag on a matchstick.”
“You can’t burn flags.”
“Sure you can,” Gabrielle said. “Just strike this end on a rough surface – ”
“No, I mean you can’t – you can’t – ”
“Yes you can,” Gabrielle countered. “It’s in the Constitution. Freedom of speech.”
The guy was suddenly at a loss for words. But I could see him doing a slow burn.
“Let it go, Jimmy,” the second guy said calmly. “It isn’t worth it.”
“The hell it isn’t!” Jimmy replied. “I won’t let it go!” He turned back to Gabrielle and me – though his focus was on me. “I’m so sick of you goddam liberals spitting on everything that’s sacred to this country – ”
“We’re not spitting on the Constitution!”
“I mean the goddam flag!”
“It’s just a symbol,” Gabrielle said.
“It’s not just a symbol! It’s our country’s symbol! People have died for it!”
By now, I felt, certain things had to be said. “Didn’t they die for the freedom it represents?”
“They died for the flag. My father died for the flag.”
“I’m sorry for that. But do you mean to say the symbol is more important than the freedom?”
“You’re goddam right I do. You’re goddam right.”
He took a step toward us then, both his fists clenched. But his buddy intervened. “Jimmy, Jimmy, wait.” He grabbed Jimmy’s arms and pulled them behind his back and pinned them there, like a wrestling hold.
“Lemme go, Frank,” Jimmy demanded, wriggling his shoulders furiously from side to side. “I’m gonna kill this bastard.” He meant me. Gabrielle, I realized suddenly, was no longer at my side; she seemed to have shrunk back from the confrontation.
“Hold on, Jimmy, wait! He isn’t worth it! This piece of shit isn’t worth it!” Jimmy struggled some more. He was a big guy, and looked very strong, but Frank was bigger and held him fast.
Abruptly, Jimmy stopped. “All right all right all right.” His voice was calm. Frank eased his grip. I thought: now is when he will attack. But Jimmy had regained his composure; he smoothed out his jacket and straightened his tie. His eyes, though, stayed on me. “You’re lucky Frank was here to stop me. And that’s all I got to say to you.” He turned sharply and stalked away. Frank, too, leveled a hate stare before he turned and walked off.
Gabrielle had backed away about twenty-five or thirty feet. Her hesitant smile suggested guilt. “I think that’s enough for one day.”
My car was parked in the same direction Frank and Jimmy were walking, so we went the other way for a couple of blocks, turned a corner, and went into a used bookstore I knew of. After giving Frank and Jimmy enough time, we hoped, to be long gone, we walked back to my car and started driving home.
We didn’t say much as we sped along the freeway. For the time being I pushed Gabrielle’s vanishing act to the back of my mind. But thanks to her I’d nearly been beaten to a pulp. We broke up a few days later.
How was it, I wondered as we drove, that something I found so amusing could spark such fury in someone else? Well, his father – that was plain enough. But Jimmy was wrong. No one dies for the flag. They die because of bad foreign policy. And that is a stupendous human tragedy; it should ignite everyone’s fury.