The Flag, Mr. Adams and Charlie

In order that his Most Sovereign Majesty, King George III, his ministers and his army of Redcoats would become aware of something significant arising among the nations, a plain-spoken farmer-lawyer from Braintree, Massachusetts, stood up among the delegates of the Continental Congress and offered this proposal: “Resolved, that the flag of the thirteen United States shall be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the Union be thirteen stars, white on a blue field, representing a new constellation.” The time had come, he decided, that the fledgling new nation acquire a standard all her own. The date was June 14, 1777, and the speaker was John Adams.

And what a “constellation”! Mr. Adams would be amazed to see how the American experiment has turned out since his time. Certainly, there would be things he would understand (and maybe approve of); but at the same time, there would much he couldn’t contemplate, much less understand, in the U.S. today. But that is the nature of things. Knowing ancient history as he did, John Adams would recognize that civilizations rise and fall and that the American one would have its own cycles, consisting of its own high and fallow periods. But he would surely be pleased that the flag he helped create back then would have a day all its own.

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So, another Flag Day is upon us. It is time to take out the flag and properly display the national colors for all to see. Sandwiched between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, it is a minor observance when it comes to national holidays. That’s too bad, since it is a day rich in meaning, for many reasons. In describing the flag, George Washington said this: “We take the stars from Heaven, the red from our mother country, separating it by white stripes, thus showing that we have separated from her, and the white stripes shall go down to posterity representing Liberty.” 

Actually, the red in the flag represents valor, zeal and fervency; the white represents hope, purity and cleanliness of life, as well as rectitude of conduct; and the blue is the color of heaven and represents reverence to God, loyalty, sincerity, justice and truth. The flag represents all these characteristics and more; though grounded in fact, it has a few legends attached to it, too; the most famous of which concerns Betsy Ross and the flag she stitched together.

But when it comes to the American flag, I do not think of historical legends or historical fact. I think about someone who (by his very presence) taught an impressionable youngster something very elemental about the “red, white and blue.” That man was Charles Werns, and he was our next-door neighbor on University Avenue. As children growing up in the Bronx, we were always taught to address our elders and all adults with courtesy and respect; we were not to assume any undue familiarity with adults, even with those we knew. But that was hard when it came to Mr. Werns. To us kids, he was just plain Charlie.

The name suited him, for Charlie was a delightful man as well as a kind man. All the kids loved him, especially when Halloween came around. He was unsparing with the candy and when that ran out, he relied on plan number two: George Washington’s quarters. (The really mischievous kids came around more than once to refill their goody bags; but dear old Charlie never held it against them, though he’d caution them about the importance of sharing with others.) He was generous with those quarters, especially when my sister and I came around. Even if we got candy, he’d be sure to slip a few quarters to each of us, only he’d make sure no one else knew about it.

Charlie stood out for another reason, besides the Halloween candy and the quarters: he was an intensely loyal and patriotic American. I do not know whether he was a veteran or not; I was too young to understand such things.  However, it was from him that I learned something that wasn’t easily gleaned from a school history or civics textbook. He taught me what being an American is all about, in its best and truest sense. And this I saw for myself on a late spring morning, when it was just the two of us, and the flag.

How that came about, I don’t remember. But I do remember quite clearly how he carried the flag with great care to the flagpole in his garden and slowly raised it up to the very top. The flag shone in the early morning sun and Charlie looked up with reverence and pride at the tableau before him. Charlie and my father were good friends, and they were always that, despite the differences in ages, nationality, religion and political sympathies. As far as they were concerned, there was nothing a good cold beer and a good, robust laugh couldn’t solve. To Charlie, all of that did not matter when he stood by the flagpole.

The virtues the American flag embodies were present in Charlie. The lesson he taught didn’t require any words. His patriotism was of the basic kind, heartfelt and sincere. Not for him was the hotheaded, unthinking kind of patriotism, the kind that demonized others with differing views. Humiliating and belittling the other fellow was not to be found in his American DNA. His was a reasoned patriotism, the kind that came from the wisdom in living life in a truly American way.  For Charlie, politics not only “stopped at the water’s edge,” they also stopped at the flagpole.

I would like to think that if Mr. Adams had been around on that day and surveyed the scene in that backyard, he would have been very pleased this his Revolutionary work had borne such fruit. And if it had been left to him, it is most likely that Charlie would have made this Founding Father take off his tricorn hat, and join in on a modern-day mini “Continental Congress”—with the members being Mr. Adams, Dad, and Charlie himself—and “strike a blow for liberty.”

The sight of the three of them would have made for quite a “constellation”; and with the stories, the libations and the eventual laughter that would ensue (thanks to Charlie), this “meeting of the minds” would surely warm many a patriotic heart.

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