Special Reports

As frayed flags are retired, stories are told of their service

A year ago, we raised every American flag we could lay hands on.

A year later, hundreds of those flags have reached the point at which the U.S. Flag Code suggests they should be retired. Wednesday, at the Puyallup Fair, the girls of Girl Scout Troop 430, assisted by Puyallup veterans, exchanged close to 300 new flags for tattered ones. Later, they will give the worn flags a ceremonial disposal.

But Lizzy Combs, Hanna Wise-Maas, Maggie Rogers, Allysa Wienecke, Kelli Lotz and Nicole Johnson are modest 11-year-olds who refuse to take all the credit. They were inspired by the boys of Boy Scout Troop 299, who collected worn flags earlier this year.

Karen LaFlamme of the fair and Bruce Uhl of the City of Puyallup helped the Puyallup New Car Dealers Association buy 500 new flags for the program. The girls were there to give them out, and to hear a bit about the flags they were receiving into retirement.

Rowena Horn flew her flag with an attitude somewhere between grief, relief and gratitude.

"We have a daughter-in-law who made it through last year," she said. "She was a block away from the South Tower, working in the Deutsche Bank building. The security man got everyone out, then went back in to make sure no one else was inside, and he was killed. He was an honorable man. I don't even know if, at the time, he knew he was a patriot."

Rowena believes he was.

Frank Espanto, who works at Good Samaritan Hospital, has seen flags unite his Summit neighborhood.

"It started with one flag, and as soon as one flag went up, it seemed like all the neighbors put them up," he said. "It started conversations. There was more communication, all because the flags were out."

Dave Ellis of Tacoma's East Side did not trade in his worn flag. Instead, he and his children will write essays to be stored with it as part of the family's history. Dave hopes those reflections will give his descendants a view into the duties and questions the flag requires of us.

"I think that because I'm ex-Navy, it's always meant quite a bit to me," Dave said.

In the service, he said, he was prepared to die for the freedoms the flag represented.

"That's the case, even when the freedoms are embarrassing," he said.

Radical dissent, a taste for pornography have no appeal to him, but they're part of the package, part of the guarantee, along with the right to agree fully with the administration, or to make great art. "It's what makes us," he said.

Dave is part of the fabric that makes this flag so strong. He has been willing to die for a country, and to question its policies.

Colleen Wise, who with Joanne Rogers leads Troop 430, had spent most of her adult life taking joy in flying the flag, and much of the past few months teaching the girls in the troop about its history and etiquette.

"All through this, part of me had not wanted to fly the flag," she said. "It was because of a profound sadness I felt for the country."

Nor did Colleen, who is a nationally respected quilter, have the heart to quilt for months after the attacks. When she did sew again, it was to make a tribute to the victims at the Pentagon.

Wednesday morning, she took out the family flag and hung it from the garage, properly for now, until she can arrange for better display.

"Of itself, it's nothing," Colleen said. "It's just a piece of fabric. But what's it soaked with? It's soaked with the blood of so many brave people."

Kathleen Merryman: 253-597-8677 kathleen.merryman@mail.tribnet.com