There's much to know about the American flag

July 04, 2003

Is there a red stripe or a white stripe at the top of the American flag?

If you didn't know without peeking, you're probably not alone.

(Try to remember this: The stripes start and end with red.)

Too often, we take the American flag for granted. We see it, recognize it and know the basics: 50 white stars on a blue field represent the 50 states. Thirteen alternating red and white stripes stand for the original thirteen colonies.

But there's much to know - and much to teach - about the Stars and Stripes.

A few weeks ago I was chatting with Gunnery Sgt. Raymond Jones while his sons were being photographed for the newspaper.

Jones, who has been a Marine for 17 years, asked if I would write about the American flag for the Fourth of July.


Parents should feel a responsibility to teach their children the history of our flag and the proper way to display and treat it, says Jones, a father of four.

Start by talking about what the flag stands for - our nation's resolve to be the land of the free, suggests Jones, who has been stationed at the Marine Corps Reserve Training Center in Frederick, Md., for three years.

"Everything our nation stands for is in that flag itself," Jones says. "I always get goose pimples when the national anthem is played and the flag is being flown.

"It's a symbol of freedom."

The blue field of white stars was designed to represent a new constellation.

George Washington described the flag in these words: "We take the stars from heaven, the red from our mother country, separating it by white stripes, thus showing we have separated from her, and the white stripes shall go down to posterity, representing liberty."

Today is Independence Day, the 227th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It's a perfect opportunity to talk about our country's heritage and traditions.

Children may not know that there is a ceremony for putting the flag up in the morning and taking it down at night, says Jones, who makes presentations on the flag to Scout groups.

The flag can be flown 24 hours a day, but it must be illuminated during hours of darkness.

The flag should not fly in the rain.

When the flag is taken down, it should be folded carefully and put away. The flag should not touch the ground.

When displayed, the union blue should be in the upper-left corner.

A flag flown outside should not drag on tree limbs or other obstructions.

If a flag is to be flown half-staff, it should be taken to the peak of the staff first and then lowered half of the distance between the top and bottom of the staff.

Flags are flown at half-staff for 30 days when a U.S. President dies and 10 days if a vice president or governor dies. When other elected officials die, the president or a governor may order the flag to be flown at half-staff for a certain length of time. On Memorial Day, it is flown at half-staff until noon, then raised to the top of the flag pole.

A dirty flag can be laundered, and a torn flag can be repaired.

When a flag is not fit to be flown, it should be burned in a private ceremony, also known as the flag retirement. Cut away the field of blue. Then, remove each stripe and burn one at a time. The field of blue should be burned last. After the glowing embers have turned to gray and white ashes, the remains should be buried.

By developing respect for the flag at an early age, children can begin to grasp that their freedom was bought with a price.

Just as the patriots fought and died for what they believe in, members of our armed forces are fighting battles today.

"We still have men and women overseas," Jones says.

Let's not forget that sobering thought.

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at

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