08/03/2012 06:47 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Piece of Cloth

Even though we put her in the centerpiece of a TV news story, I do not remember her name. Her face was slightly puffy and she had those narrowed eyes that come from living too long on the plains of West Texas and staring at distant horizons. The voice, though, nasal and almost liquid with no distinction between words, is unforgettable. I think she had on a "Kenworth" gimme cap and her thick fingers were splayed across the counter next to the cash register.

She was being provoked for TV production.

"But it's just a piece of cloth with three colors," she was told.

"Well, no, no it's not," she said. "It's more 'n 'at, 'n you know it." The screen door to her little store swung open and a bell tinkled softly before the wooden jamb sounded a slap.

"You don't think you're being sentimental? Even emotional about, you know, just an object?"

"Course I am." She was almost indignant. "Ain't you? You oughta be. I reckon we all oughta be."

"Is that why you live out here?" she was asked. "Because of the name and everything?

"I live here 'cause this is my home. I was raised up around here. But that name's a good reason to be here and to stay."

A customer approached the counter with a cold six-pack of beer and the provocateur stepped back to enable the transaction. Circles of sweat and dirt covered the back of his shirt and his blue jeans had a brown sheen. After he paid, he looked at the lights and the camera and did a brief nod of recognition to the strangers but said nothing as he walked back out into the white summer Texas glare.

"You just think about it," she continued. "Where it's been and what it means. Who's stood by it all the time, no matter what. Ever'body that died and that leadin' up to you 'n me standin' here."

"Sure. Sure. But when it comes down to it, it's just a colored piece of cloth, isn't it?"

She was frustrated, pulled back from the counter, and pointed her finger at the questioner.

"But that's a precious thing," she said. "And don't you forget that. It's a precious thing."

She did not care that her little town was dying, the oil wells were going as dry as the cotton rows, and the school was closed. There was a rusted harvester in a field across the road and a dry wind off the Chihuahuan Desert rattling the rope on the flagpole. There was no flag atop the pole but the photographer turned around when he heard the screen door's whack and she was walking out with a carefully folded American flag. She gently opened the corners as if it were a living thing she did not wish to disturb and inserted clips from the rope into the two metal rings at the corners. She held it all above her head to protect it from the ground as she tugged the rope with her free hand.

Nobody else was around to see her ritual, even though her town was named after the American flag. There was only the long line of sky and earth connecting in every direction but she did not care. Finally using both hands to pull the rope, she stared upwards as the wind caught the material and the flag snapped. Every day for years she had been raising the flag and it had only increased her reverence. She tied off the rope to the pole then turned and solemnly went back to her cash register.


Old Glory, Texas sits between the Salt Fork and the Double Mountain Fork of the Brazos River. German settlers founded the town as Brandenburg but there was never more than a schoolhouse and a general store and when a small railroad was built the town site shifted closer to the trains and became New Brandenburg. The anti-German fervor of World War I reached way out into West Texas and the people living in Brandenburg decided to change their little town's name to Old Glory. There is not much to cheer about in Old Glory as farms fail and nearby oil wells get tapped out by time.

But there is that flag.

And when you hear politicians insulting each other with words and the democratic process with their behavior and their money, or you think about greed and corruption in business and on Wall Street, or giant political groups with hundreds of millions of dollars to distort your perceptions and judgments with their lies, or you consider wars lacking meaning or purpose, or schools without enough money or families without jobs and health care, stop.

Just for a moment.

That is not what that flag represents. It is about what might be, what could be, what should be. It is an aspiration that is guaranteed to be fluttering as you read this on the wind in West Texas. Cynicism cannot even wound what it symbolizes. The founding promises have not exactly been kept but they still could be honored with actions. That is what that flag represents. It still moves dreams and starts hearts. It always will.

And like the lady said, "That's a precious thing."

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