Oh, say can you see? | AspenTimes.com

Oh, say can you see?

Andy Stone
Aspen, CO Colorado

Over the years, as I have driven around the country, I have been consistently amazed by one thing.

Wherever I go ” East Coast to West Coast, Deep South or frozen North, big city or small town ” it is immediately and undeniably evident that the most patriotic people in town are the car dealers.

In some towns, the king of the patriots is a new car dealer; in some towns, a used car guy. Sometimes it’s the Chevy dealer, sometimes Ford. Sometimes even Toyota or Nissan.

But always, it’s a car dealer who’s top-dog patriot ” and always it’s other car dealers who are the runners-up nipping at his heels.

How do I know?

Easy. They have the biggest flags.

Sometimes it seems as if the only thing limiting the sheer rampaging patriotism of the local car dealers is the height of the available flag poles; if their flags were any bigger, they’d be dragging on the ground, and that definitely would not be patriotic.

I know you’ve all seen those flags. Huge hunks of cloth, so vast they almost never ripple or snap in the wind.

Oh say does that Star-spangled Banner still wave? Nope ” not unless it’s a force five gale.

Now, a cynical person ” not me, of course ” might want to argue that those car guys (Crazy Harry’s Used Cars, perhaps, or Bloatville Ford or Goatsucker Toyota) aren’t really all that patriotic. They’re just greedy.

That argument would go this way: Most towns have limits on how big a sign you can put on your business ” and even if the regulations allow really humongous signs, limits are limits. But no one ever limits the size of the American flag.

That wouldn’t be patriotic. Indeed, it would be absolutely un-American.

And so ” the cynic’s argument would continue ” those car dealers have found a way to call attention to themselves with a foolproof, bullet-proof end-run around any local ordinances.

And you know what? Even if I were the kind of cynic who’d make that argument, I’d have to say that limiting a man’s ability to advertise his business is pretty damned un-American in itself. So finding a way around those limits essentially is a patriotic act.

And doing it with an American flag is doubly patriotic, isn’t it?

Which means, even if we follow the cynic’s path, we have to wind up agreeing that those car dealers are the most patriotic people in town.

Now, that said, I have to backtrack and confess that, in fact, it isn’t always the car dealers who have the biggest flags. (And it just occurred to me, I really need to emphasize I am not in any way suggesting anyone is trying to unfurl the biggest flag to compensate for any inadequacies when it comes to his own personal, um, flagpole.)

Anyway, I remember driving through one small town and seeing an unbelievably huge flag. I was wondering what brand of cars they were selling. And then I saw, by golly, it was an American flag manufacturing company. Which made me wonder if they were showing their patriotism or just advertising their product.

And there was an interesting squabble over a case of non-car-dealer big-flag syndrome in Vail a few years ago.

In that case, the flag-waver was the developer of a shopping center. His project was right next to the interstate, but it was hidden from the highway by a bit of a ridge. (We are in the mountains, you know.)

So the developer erected a huge flagpole (and, again, I did not choose that verb in an attempt to hint at the issue I mentioned earlier regarding personal inadequacies ” definitely not).

That flagpole was so tall you could see it from the interstate. A coincidence, of course. That just happened to be the size of flagpole he needed to match the size of his patriotism. And, of course, a flagpole that huge demanded a flag to match.

A huge flag.

And when neighbors objected to the size of the developer’s erection (OK, I admit it ” that one’s just a cheap joke), he insisted he only was showing his love for the country.

So the neighbors suggested he could set up several dozen normal-size flagpoles, lining the entrance to the shopping center, flying a virtual sea of American flags.

But the developer was adamant. Nothing would express his patriotism properly except a flagpole that stretched to the sky ” and just happened to be a little higher than the ridge between his development and the thousands of cars a day driving by on the highway.

And, since we’re talking about the American flag, the developer won. He got to keep his pole and his flag.

Which, at last, brings us to the question of whether flying an American flag ” in front of your business, on the end of your car’s radio antenna or pinned to your lapel ” is a true expression of your love for this country.

Now don’t get me wrong. I happen to really, really love the American flag. I think it’s beautiful. I find it inspiring. I remember to this day the pride I felt when I carried it as a Cub Scout, as a member of the Color Guard. And I remember how anxious I was, fearful I might accidentally let that flag ” almost too big for me to carry ” brush against the ground.

But I also remember, back in the 1970s, cops with American flag patches sewn to the shoulders of their uniforms arresting hippies for the crime of having American flags sewn to the back of their denim jackets.

Somehow the cops knew, they just absolutely knew for a fact, that they wore their own flag patches to honor the flag and the country ” while the hippies wore their flags to dishonor both flag and country.

Symbols are powerful. Symbols are important.

But they are only symbols.

The person who prays the loudest isn’t necessarily the most religious.

The person who makes speeches about the sanctity of marriage isn’t necessarily faithful to his wife.

The person with the biggest flag isn’t necessarily the most patriotic.

And the person with the flag pin on his lapel doesn’t necessarily hold this nation closest to his heart.