It’s unsettling to see flames consume the flag of the United States of America.
Boy Scout Cooper Brown certainly felt that way as he used scissors to ready a flag for the waiting fire. But the important lesson on this cold November night is that everything has a final end, including a well-treasured flag.
The important thing is to give these banners a respectful send-off.
“It’s a hard thing to do,” said Scoutmaster Robert Odekirk. “It’s difficult for the boys, and it should be.”
As Odekirk and the boys commit the worn flags, some brown with age, others faded or tattered, to a brazier of blazing alder, he reminds them of the reason.
“It’s not being done out of disrespect,” Odekirk said. “It’s being done to retire, not to destroy.”
Fall City’s Boy Scout Troop 425 joined veterans with the Renton Pickering Post of the American Legion for a flag retirement ceremony, held at the Snoqualmie Valley Veterans Memorial. For the post, it was the first public flag retirement in decades, possibly ever.
Scouts and leaders use an intricate ceremony to show respect.
“We are not burning a flag,” Odekirk tells the Scouts. “We are retiring a symbol of America.”
“I’ve always had a love affair with the American flag,” says Tom Burford, a history teacher at Snoqualmie Middle School. “As an American history teacher, I’ve always considered myself a patriot. I believe in what the flag stands for, and I believe it should be treated with respect at all times.”
When he sees a flag that’s past its prime, Burford will stop and try to convince the owner that it’s time to replace it. Most end up agreeing with him that it’s better to bring it down rather than fly the flag without respect, and hand it over.
In the run-up to Veteran’s Day, Burford and his history students collected worn flags for retirement. At an assembly on Friday morning, Nov. 9, students brought the flags forward to be presented to the local American Legion post. Flags will be stored until they can be properly retired.
It’s Burford’s fourth year of organizing the flag collection.
“The flag represents our country,” Burford says. “It should get a proper retirement.”
While there are no hard-and fast rules—and protests involving the burning of the flag are legal under U.S. law—veterans and patriots try to stick to the Code of the Flag, which governs how the Stars and Stripes should be presented and handled.
Burford credits his time as a teacher in San Antonio, Texas, near Lackland Air Force Base, for instilling deep beliefs about respect for country and flag. All faces turned to the pole when the flag was raised and lowered.
“Nationwide, we often take it a bit for granted, until there is a need to be patriotic,” Burford said. “You can’t just be a part-time patriot.”
Young people, he says, get it. “They understand there’s right and wrong. They understand the respect thing.”
His students now leap to volunteer to fold the worn flags that come in.
“It’s not an easy task. They have to practice it,” Burford said. “They’ve stepped up.”
With poems and the playing of Taps, readings from the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the Gettysburg Address, and sayings such as “One if by land, two if by sea” and “Give me liberty or give me death,” members of Troop 425 casts each cut flag piece to the fire. As the stars are burned, Odekirk voices the name of a U.S. state.
Then, members of the audience are invited to retire other worn flags. Last, Scouts fold up a large flag and place it gently on the fire.
The sight of a flag on fire is humbling, and the audience keeps a respectful silence.
Some might be used to seeing a burning flag on the news, as a protest.
“That’s why we talk so much about it” as a troop, Odekirk said. “We want to make sure it’s very clear why we’re doing it, and more importantly, how.”
“It’s a lesson in citizenship and community service,” said Scoutmaster Todd Brown. “It helps them think about where those flags were, where they came from.”
“I knew it needed to be done,” said 13-year-old Scout Erik Spalding. “They’re already beat up. They can’t fly anymore. It’s an opportunity to respect the flag.”
Scouts collected hundreds of worn flags. There’s more than can be honorably retired in one evening. So these ceremonies will continue.
When worn, cotton and natural-fiber flags are burned. Synthetic flags should be buried. Brown is building a wooden box and plans to retire the synthetic flags in a field on his Fall City property.
• To learn more about Scouting, visit fallcitytroop425.org.