When most of us try to imagine the "quintessential" American, it is usually my neighbors we are envisioning. They smile at strangers. They host the occasional church group. They have a pool where their family gathers and their grandchildren play. They keep a garden and tend to it daily—their lawn is a silent symphony of color, flowers I could always feel but never name. They are godly, goodly, and gracious. It is foolish to pretend that anyone can be distilled to a single word, but gentle has always been the one that comes to mind. And every morning, like clockwork, they walk out to their flagpole and raise their American flag.
I have always been enchanted by this flagpole. On the one hand, in the obvious sense, it is an all-American salute from an all-American family, an unvarnished display of patriotism as simple as it is absolute. But it has also often felt like an aberration—a relic from another time, if not entirely out of place. How many of your neighbors have gone through the trouble of installing a flagpole in the middle of their lawns? Not a flagstick, not a holder, not a pennant strapped to the back of a sedan -- the sort of display you’d expect to find outside a judicial office or the DMV, as proper and permanent as they come. Our neighborhood is full of Proud Americans of all colors and stripes, but on this count, I know of only one.
Like many people grappling with our country’s problems today, I have been unable to escape the feeling of a loss of national innocence. We have been both hardened by hard realities and weakened by weak resolve. As our discourse has devolved beyond logic, and the tragedies have compounded too quickly to count, my neighbors’ simple daily gesture has never felt so quaint. As I grew older -- and moved out of town for school, work, love -- I would regard their flagpole with an almost bewildered affection each time I returned home. In an age when our symbols of unity are diminished to props designed to divide, the idea of my neighbors rising each morning to raise their flag has been a bedrock of small and sacred comfort, a vicarious ritual through which I too could inhale: We -- this -- will endure. They radiate love and safety. They don’t just fly our flag; they embody the reasons it deserves to be flown. I know nothing of their political persuasions, their positions on this policy or that. I know only that it is a beautiful thing, to see them hoist their flag high.
Their son is a firefighter. On Monday, at four in the morning, he answered the call for a local blaze. When he arrived on the scene as a first responder, he was shot by the man who had started it. He was there to do his job: keep us safe, so we could be free to go about ours. He ran in with a hose and was greeted by a bullet. Killed in the line of duty -- not by a burning building, but a shooter waiting inside one. His life’s work is one of the last bastions of what is best about this country, that ancient spirit of unconditional support. He did not hesitate. He did not seek out caveats or loopholes or excuses. He died the living definition of a hero. There was a fire; he ran into the flames.
If there is a reason to abide in hope in America today, it is not because there are ordinary people like him among us -- that has always been true of our country, as we would not have a country without them. And yet, clearly, they alone are never enough. If anything, it must be because we can all live like they do, day by day and person to person, faithfully playing our self-determined parts. Today, there are fires all around us. We can avert our eyes, plug our noses, drown out the sirens’ roars. But in the end, we fall victim together. We all inhale the smoke. It hardly takes a villain to let the flames be fanned. Heroes dare to put them out.
This week, for the first time I can remember in my short and lucky life, my neighbors’ flag is flying at half-staff. It is surreal to know why it hangs there, halfway down the pole. If you were driving through town and happened upon it, you would probably assume some distant, faceless public official had passed away of old age.
There are vigils elsewhere around town -- flowers bunched at the station, banners draped from the overpasses, signs scrawled in trembling sharpie, doing what little good they can. But here at this corner of America, where the people greet you with a smile and the flowers are always in bloom, there is only what has been there all along: a spangled piece of colored cloth, hanging from a metal pole that never seems to rust.
My neighbors are also heroes. They will raise it tomorrow too.