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TITLE: Fifty Stars in a Background of Blue
By James Brown

A patriotic story I wrote after the funeral of my uncle, a WW II veteran.
It seems these days that everyone has a cause, something they are passionate about. It may be a spotted owl or acid rain. Everyone has a thought about Iraq and Iran. Many, many ideals are debated over and over all across our land. One debate that seems to rise its ugly head time after time is the issue of the flag.

One day Americans fly the flag with pride and the next they want to burn it. We as a nation have always fought for the underdog, finding the one who is down trodden and seeking to restore them. I wonder if it is time we took up the cause of our biggest underdog – the Stars and Stripes!

I am reminded of Francis Scott Key, a prisoner on a British Ship, as I hear the Star Spangled Banner sung before a Hockey game. All that long dark night the battle raged, so naturally at daybreak he wondered what the outcome was. The sight of that battered and torn American Flag gently waving in the breeze spoke volumes – WE WON!

I recently attended the funeral of my uncle, a veteran. He was a man that put his life on the line for his country. At the end of the ceremony, the funeral director presented his widow with a folded American Flag. I was close enough to hear him tell my Aunt that the President of the United States had authorized him to present that flag in honor of a fallen comrade.

I hope this simple story will bring things into perspective, as I endeavor to enter the fray. Is a flag simply a piece of cloth, strands of fiber woven together in a pretty pattern or is it something more? Maybe Linus can help us decide.

It was a quaint country, made up of fifty cities joined together under a single banner. The nation was born of strife. They fought hard to gain their freedom from an oppressive tyrant and many men died, but they didn’t die in vain. They bought their loved ones freedom with their own blood. So in honor of their fallen comrades, they devised a new flag.

There were fifty stars set in a background of blue with each star representing a city. Beside and below the background of blue, ran thirteen horizontal red and white stripes. The flag was given many nicknames – Old Glory, the Stars and Stripes, the Star Spangled Banner. A bald eagle resided at the top of the flagpole with its wings out spread in flight. The flag meant something to that generation. It was more than just a sentimental emotion; it represented their struggle for freedom. They were free as long as that flag fluttered in the breeze,

The geographical location ensured that the people enjoyed many years of peace. On the East Coast, as well as the West, there was a gigantic body of water. There were few places where an enemy could land a boat, but these were easily defended. The ports were narrow, allowing only one or two ships to approach at a time. Each port was at the base of extensive hills allowing a handful of archers to hold off a thousand enemy warriors.

The northern and southern borders were even more difficult to penetrate. A massive desert protected the south causing a foe to take three days to traverse that sandy wasteland. Any water had to be carried. By the time the invading army made it to the border, if they made it that far, they would be exhausted and unable to fight. The northern border was just as bad. Instead of intense heat though, the invaders would face frigid cold. Temperatures remained below zero the majority of the year with the exception of about forty-five days a year when the temperature would get above freezing.

The ice would melt during the warm spell, forming rivers of freezing water that flowed under the crust. These rivers were all but impossible to see, but one step on the crust would submerge the warrior in the freezing water. The attacking force was then forced to move extremely slow, allowing the people of the country to easily attack from a distance with their bows and arrows.

The geography of the land provided protection, but it also provided prosperity. There were vast deposits of gold, silver, copper, oil, and natural gas. Thousands of acres of timber were harvested while the fertile plains brought forth produce in abundance. Every thing the people needed could be found or produced in the country. They neither needed nor wanted outside interference, they were happy to keep their country just the way it was.

The people began to loose their heritage as time and prosperity continued, causing the flag to become nothing more than a symbol of the past. In one of the cities, New Yorkshire, colleges arose that spoke against the flag saying it was an archaic artifact that had outlived its purpose. Linus, one of the students who attended a New Yorkshire University, bought into the lie, hook, line and sinker. He would participate in flag burning ceremonies and scorn those old men who cried over the desecration.

He took up the cause and went to other cities spreading the propaganda. Life was sweet for him. He was involved in a cause that was changing his nation by helping it emerge from the dark ages into a time of enlightenment. He never considered that it was the sacrifice of thousands of his countrymen that allowed him the freedom to burn the flag. How ironic that those men and women died so he could have the freedom to speak against their very sacrifice.

While the nation was enjoying its peace and prosperity they began to bicker and fight amongst themselves. The cities that had much didn’t want to share with those who lacked. People began to hoard necessities and such kindnesses as a simple ‘Thank you’ became a thing of the past. You had to search long and hard to find a smile. The people were rich but miserable.

One summer the unimaginable happened. The northern wasteland never thawed for the first time in the history of the land. The temperature never climbed above twenty-five degrees all summer, affording their enemies the perfect chance to conquer the rich country. Many countries banded together to defeat this proud and separated people. They assembled, each country under its own flag, and began the march to paradise.

The people of the country were not completely foolish, having maintained a fully armed and functional army. Watchmen on the border sent word that the enemy was approaching. The alarm sounded and men from every walk of life dropped what they were doing to go to the aid of their country. Linus and his followers joined the assembling army still despising the flag, but loving a good fight. In order to obtain money to live on, they would put on sword demonstrations along with their propaganda and in the last five years Linus had never been beaten.

The reports from the watchmen were not good. The closest estimates were that the enemy outnumbered them five to one and they had just a few days to devise a strategy to save their homeland. Military leaders got together and examined many battle plans, discarding them one by one, causing the leaders much dismay. They began to wonder if there was a plan that could work.

Finally an old man, named Alfredo, was able to force his way into the conference saying he had an idea. He showed them a map of the northern border with four lines drawn on it. The other three borders would have just enough sentries to prevent an invasion from two fronts while the remaining forces would be split along the four lines with the majority on a fifth. The front line would attack, halt the advance of the armies, then retreat to the next line. There the combined forces would fight another delaying action before retreating, continuing this pattern until they reached the last line.

That line would determine the fate of the country. If the enemy broke through there, all was last. All available forces would be assembled at that point where they would fight to the last man. It wasn’t the best plan, but it was the best they could come up with in the short time they had.

The last suggestion Alfredo made was to get every flag they could find, mount it on a pole and take it to the front lines.

“There is hope as long as those flags flutter in the breeze,” he said. “If the last flag falls, so does our country. You need to find volunteers who will carry those flags into battle. They will have to be brave and stalwart souls because they will carry a flag instead of a sword: a shield in one hand and a flag in the other. It will be their duty to see that their flag is raised for all to see. They need to understand that they will face the biggest brunt of the battle, as the enemy will want that flag destroyed and with it our will to fight. Without these flags, I fear all is lost.”

A big debate arose. Most wanted as many swords on the battlefield as possible. “If you put a flag in a warriors hand, he cannot hold a sword, thus he is useless.” The debate raged long into the night, finally resolved when a small army of ancient warriors, dressed in the outdated uniforms of the original continental army approached. These men were too old to wield a sword, but they could hold a flagpole. These heroes volunteered to be the flag bearers on the front line.

Linus could not believe these men, thinking that the entire idea was stupid. Many of these men were the same ones he had seen weeping as he burned countless flags. All he could see were old men who wanted to relive the glory days. He looked at that sea of weathered faces, knowing most of them would be killed and despised them for it. Instead of fear, though, he saw a quiet determination, a willingness to die for a cause. To his thinking they were going to die for a piece of cloth.

Linus despised Alfredo but he determined he would fight right beside the man. His reasoning had nothing to do with the flag, he simply figured that the fighting would be fiercest around these martyrs. Alfredo was appointed center stage on the first line of battle so Linus and his cronies volunteered for the same position.

Early the next morning, the troops were deployed to their respective lines. Reports came from the other borders reporting that all was calm, so all was in readiness. There was nothing left to do but watch and pray. Linus watched Alfredo as they waited for the battle to begin. He was a bundle of nervous energy, but Alfredo sat quiet, waiting.

“How can you sit there so calm and content.”

“I have faced battle in the past. I do not look forward to it, but it must be done. We have multitudes of women and children who need to be protected. If these hoards break through our lines, our families will suffer. I am not the fool you think I am son. I know I will most likely die today, I am ready for that. But how could I face myself if I sat home safe and sound while we lost the battle. I would watch that hoard devastate our land and ravish our families. No, I will not stand by and let that happen.”

“If you feel that strongly, why don’t you die with a sword in your hand? Don’t throw your life away for nothing man. Make it count!”

“My life will count the most by holding that flag, young man. But now is not the time to argue, behold, the hoard approaches.”

The clanking that Linus had heard in the background suddenly made sense. He looked up to see line after line of enemy soldiers approaching. He stood transfixed, unable to move. He had all kinds of dreams and ideas about warfare, but they all forsook him when he needed them most. To his chagrin, those ideals were replaced with fear.

“Fear is not a bad thing, son,” Alfredo said to Linus as if reading his mind. “Use it to spur you on. Don’t let it conquer you. You have the skill and ability. When the battle begins, let your practice and training take over. You’ll do fine, trust me!”

“You know what, old man, I have despised you all these years, but in these last few moments, I have come to respect you. I still don’t agree with you, but I respect you for staying true to your convictions. Don’t worry, I’ll stick close to you and protect you as best I can.”

“Thank you, son,” Alfredo said as tears welled up in his eyes. “I pray you will live through this onslaught and see the power in the flag. Now, look closely at their line and count the number of different flags they are sporting. I have counted no less than thirty-eight. Think of it, thirty-eight different flags representing thirty-eight different countries. There is no unity among them. It is every country for itself. We are united under one flag defending our one country. They may outnumber us, but we have the advantage and we will be victorious today!”

At a preconceived signal from Alfredo, every flag bearer stood and began marching toward the enemy. The soldiers quickly got their armament together and began marching as well. Linus caught up with Alfredo and marched next to him. A few men broke ranks and ran back to safety, but the majority kept marching. Some were whimpering, some singing others were lecturing themselves. Once again, at a signal from Alfredo, every flag bearer let out a roar that filled the soldiers with an unexplainable confidence that set them to running toward the enemy.

The two armies collided in an explosion of sound, sword against sword amid cries of pain and terror. Sunlight reflected off shiny swords that quickly turned crimson with blood. Two bands flowed into one, creating chaos like a tsunami slamming into the unyielding shore. Linus was terrified, wanting to join the deserters, but he would not allow himself to desert Alfredo. The first clang his sword made as he faced his first foe drained his fear and replaced it with focus. His blade became a blur, slashing this way, thrusting that way. Enemy soldiers were falling at his feet as Alfredo urged him on.

The first line had completed their objective, so the retreat was sounded. Alfredo turned to call Linus who was so caught up in the battle he never heard the signal. A monster of a man came upon him and thrust him through with his sword just as Linus looked over. Linus yelled out in horror and grief and hacked the brute with deadly blows from his sword. He stood triumphant over the bloody corpse at his feet, breathing heavily, his anger waning. He quickly went to his new friend to see what he could do to help. Alfredo knew he was done for, so grabbed the young man while he implored him to drop his sword and retreat with the flag held high.

He just couldn’t do it… Alfredo stared all the way to Linus’ soul; his eyes begging Linus to do the right thing, as life slowly retreated from them. The last thing Alfredo saw was Linus running away with his sword in his hand and his beloved flag on the ground. Mercifully, he had expired before he could witness an enemy soldier trample his precious flag into the ground.

He ran back to the next line as tears coursed down his cheeks, yelling, “You stupid old man. I told you that you would be killed. If you had only listened to me and carried a sword….”

He cursed Alfredo for a fool, yet could not get the look on the man’s face out of his mind. He began to curse himself as he felt like he was a coward for not taking up that flag. He had turned to take one last look at his friend and had seen the soldier trample Alfredo’s ‘Old Glory’. To his amazement, he felt that something within himself died with that flag. At first he thought it was the death of his friend, but he realized it was the destruction of ‘A Stupid Piece of Cloth’.

He had no time to think on it further, as the enemy was approaching the line. This time a different flag bearer gave the signal. The warriors were ready and marched out with them, yelling and screaming as they charged into the foe.

Two more times the pattern was repeated. Many frontline soldiers perished, but they took many more foes with them. Each wave of battle slowed the enemy down a bit, causing them to wonder when they would meet the full force of the army. Linus surveyed the battlefield and was surprised that he saw few enemy flags. Some were still flying, but most had been discarded.

Linus had taken his cue from Alfredo and convinced the warriors to focus on the enemy flags. He didn’t understand it, but he figured if his friend was willing to die for it, the least he could do was make sure his death was not in vain. He personally had taken out eight flag bearers in retribution for Alfred. He had set a goal of ten, so he had two more left to get.

The problem he faced was that the enemy was on to him. As soon as he approached, the flag was dropped to the ground and the bearer was running away. On one occasion, a fellow soldier killed his own flag bearer when he tried to flee. Linus surprised himself when he found himself giving a salute to that soldier. They paused for just a second to acknowledge each other, then got back to the dirty business of war.

In that second Linus sent this thought to that man, “In a different place, under different circumstances, you and Alfredo would have been brothers.” It almost seemed like the man heard him.

Part II
The commanding general had made a tactical decision as he watched the foe approach. Intelligence had confirmed that all other borders were calm, so he sent a dispatch recalling all soldiers to the northern front. He spread his army along a hilltop overlooking a large valley. In the rear he had stationed all of his archers, each with a pot of tar beside him. When the order came to shoot, they would light the tar on fire, dip their arrows in and reign a deadly fire upon the enemy from the sky.

They had had time to drag several catapults to the battlefield, so they employed them to rain boulders and large stones among the enemy. The arrows and stones found their marks, but it seemed like a drop in a bucket. The whole valley looked like ants pouring out of the hill making it look like the valley itself was alive.

The countrymen were spread out on the last line of defense, looking out over the approaching hoard and thinking it was just as big as when they started. The men that had fought the delaying action had accomplished their mission but were fatigued. Half of their army had waited at this spot. These men were fresh and ready to fight, having seen many enemy soldiers fall and now they wanted to do their share of the fighting. The enemy, on the other hand, was beginning to tire, having been marching for days and now forced to fend off the ‘nuisance’ attacks of the forward lines.

The signal was given as soon as the last arrow left the bow and the last stone was flung and the whole army moved out as one. Instead of running to meet the foe this time, they marched forward slowly and determinedly. They had brought forward the drum corps that marched next to the flag bearers, drumming out the cadence for the troops. Step by step they approached the foe determined to halt them here or die trying.

The spirit of cooperation among the troops was amazing. All the petty arguments and squabbles were forgotten. Men that were quarrelling a week ago were marching side by side into battle. Flag bearers trusted their lives to people who were burning flags a week ago. Flag burners were protecting those carrying flags.

The armies met in the valley, mingling together to form one great mass of human flesh. It would serge one way as one side began dominating. The other side would press the attack harder and the whole mass would move the other way. The superior numbers of the enemy allowed them to force the defenders back more and more while the valiant counter thrusts had less and less of an impact. The hoard was poised to burst through and ravish the country as lust drove their swords harder and faster.

Linus and his fellowmen on the other hand, were fighting not only for their own lives, but also for the lives of their families and loved ones. It had been a long, hard fight and they were beginning to falter. The human body can endure only so much and it has to give out. The defenders had almost reached that point. Linus was doing battle with a Goliath of a man and every time he parried a blow, he felt it through his entire body. His sword sagged lower and lower with weakness, causing the man to grow overconfident. He gave Linus a small opening and as quick as he could, he slid his sword through that opening to barely put down his opponent.

He glanced around drawing in great gasps of air and saw that others were fairing worse than he was. If something didn’t happen soon, all would be lost. At that moment, he looked down and saw a flag wallowing in the dirt. That self professed flag hater dropped his sword without a thought and grabbed that flag out of the dirt. He raised that flag with a shout, causing it to wave over the killing field.

“Rally around the flag men!” he screamed over and over.

Men heard his cry and quickly assembled around him. Backed by a mighty rebel shout, he cried out “Let’s do it for Alfredo and all the flag bearers who have perished this day…CHARGE!!!”

The tiny band of men followed Linus into that mass of enemy soldiers. Linus held the flag aloft in his right hand while he used the shield in his left hand as a club. An enemy sword pierced his right shoulder but a comrade beside him killed the attacker and pulled the sword out. Linus would not let the flag fall to the ground despite the agony he felt. He saw Alfredo in his mind and swore it would be different this time. If need be, he would die, but this flag would be lifted up for all to see.

Others followed his lead and took up fallen Star Spangled Banners and charged the enemy. The physical force exerted by the exhausted soldiers was not all that great, so the foe should easily have overcome it and conquered the land. But they couldn’t do it!

It was the spiritual energy that turned the tide. The sight of the Star Spangled Banner flying proudly in the air energized and united the men. Men who moments before could hardly lift a sword, were fighting with a ferocity that rivaled the feeding frenzy of great white sharks. The enemy was falling left and right, terrorized by the ferocious onslaught.

A few enemy commanders tried to rally their troops around their own flag, but there were too many different flags and not enough patriots for each one. They had no single banner to fight under, so strong powerful warriors dropped their swords and fled like whipped dogs. The foe was completely demoralized that day. Some managed to run away and hide, but most remained behind, lying dead on the frozen ground.

Linus led the charge until his wounds and fatigue demanded he stop. Before he passed out he grabbed a passing soldier and thrust the flag into his hands.

“Don’t let it fall to the ground. Keep it flying for all to see.”

He succumbed to the desires of his body and passed out. Throughout the remainder of the battle, that flag led the way, never to fall to the earth again. When the battle was over, the weary men searched the battlefield for survivors. They soon discovered Linus who was unconscious and barely alive. What made it so ironic, was that not only was he lying next to Alfredo but he also was lying on top of Alfredo’s desecrated flag.

Both men were taken home to a hero’s welcome. Alfredo’s casket was covered with the ‘Stars and Stripes’ that he led the final victory as a token of great appreciation. The flag was folded and presented to Alfredo’s widow at the end of the ceremony by the man chosen for that honor, Linus.

“I present this flag to you in humble recognition of your husband’s greatness. Your husband and men just like him are the heroes of the day. I have spent my life ridiculing him and his kind for their archaic devotion to a piece of cloth, but I have learned that a flag is not just that piece of cloth. In a sense, it is a living, breathing, yes even speaking emblem of our land. Every drop of blood, every fallen soldier adds to its voice. Every soul that is born into this country adds to its greatness, as that soul makes freedom even larger. Death does not detract from freedom. Those souls who die, whether in war or peace, are laid to rest beneath the shadow of Old Glory. They repose in peace and shelter. We may go at any time to remember them; thus they are never truly forgotten. Your husband fulfilled his duty to the highest degree; he gave his life for his country. It is now our turn to fulfill our duty. I pledge to you this day that I will commit my remaining years to the task of defending our flag, especially from the likes of the person I once was. I pray that I can have the same courage and dedication that Alfredo had. Treasure this flag dear lady, but do not worship it. The flag is a visible symbol of an invisible ideal - freedom. True freedom can only come from God. So, in a sense, when we pledge allegiance to the flag, we are ultimately pledging allegiance to the God Who makes us free.”

Great, heaving sobs erupted from deep within his soul as he spoke those last words. He finally realized what he had been doing all those wasted years. While he had been preaching how much he loved God, he had been instead, demonstrating his hatred to Him. And he called Alfredo a hypocrite.

That flag had one more service to do before it was put in its final resting place. It was draped over the coffin of Alfredo’s widow upon her death. Thousands of people flocked to the ceremony, wanting to pay respect to the country’s most famous widow and see that flag, battered and torn, unfurled one more time.

From the lowly cemetery, the Grand Old Flag was transported to the Capital City Museum where it was displayed prominently for all to see. The story of the flag was written on a plaque below it so no one would forget and up above it, written in large, bold letters were Linus’ famous words:

Treasure the flag, but do not worship it!
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