For many, the flag symbolizes the country’s untamable spirit, a physical manifestation of American esprit de corps. But what happens to an American flag that has become tattered and worn? What happens when Old Glory loses a little pomp off its circumstance?
For Roland Steyart, 17, an Eagle Scout sporting a full complement of merit badges across his chest, there is one correct answer: The flag is displayed, then folded, then retired in a hot fire. It is saluted during incineration, or the national anthem is sung. The ceremony is somber. This is not child’s play. Retiring a flag is funereal business.
Many people, however, don’t know the protocol. They dump old flags at thrift stores — or worse, in the trash. Disposing of worn flags in this way isn’t criminal, exactly, but it’s an affront to the symbol and the people who revere it.
So Steyart put his mind to finding a solution for the problem, and the form his idea took is now bolted to the ground outside the Veterans Memorial Building. The new “American Flag Repository” is an old USPS collection mailbox, sandblasted and repainted with wind-borne stars and stripes. Medallions representing the five U.S. military branches are emblazoned across its front: Marines, Navy, Air Force, Army, and Coast Guard.
The box’s corners and logo edges have been faux-painted with rust. It looks both old and brand new and entirely right in its setting, and it will serve its purpose handsomely, one hopes, in perpetuity.
Eagle Scout is a rank obtained by only four percent of all Boy Scouts. Steyart is now among the few and the proud. The honor culminates a years-long process where boys work through countless disciplines toward the scouting essence of “preparedness.”
The final step is completion of a project that gives back to a boy’s community in some fashion, and Steyart conceived his after hearing that people were leaving their old flags on the ground outside of the Vets building.
“That didn’t fit with the Boy Scouts’ values on respect,” Steyart said. So he and his dad went to work.
They found the old collection mailbox in Petaluma, and an official with the authority to let them haul it off. They researched ways to remove its military-grade all-weather paint, settling on several rounds of vigorous sandblasting. They sketched out graphic designs for the box’s repurposing, thinking they’d handle the art on their own. But when Luis Padilla, of Body Best Auto Body Repair,and Ted Green stepped up with an offer to handle the painting, the Steyarts fell back and accepted their help.
“There were months and months of roadblocks,” Roland Steyart’s father, Richard, said. “Everybody put so much effort and time into it, and we did it because of the veterans.”
The small crowd that gathered for the repository’s dedication clearly held the sacrifice veterans make near to their hearts. They were dressed in Scout uniforms or red, white and blue, and when three boys, all aiming for Eagle, marched out to put the crowd through its paces, they executed the rituals with enthusiasm and ease.
There was the three-fingered Boy Scout salute, and then the color-guard advanced, bearing flags. The Pledge of Allegiance, the Scout Law and the Scout Oath were recited, comprised of a refreshingly upright series of promises, including the pledge to keep “physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.” An invocation was proffered, a few words were spoken, the benediction was made, and a ribbon was cut.
Red, White, and Blue: A Primer
Seven red stripes and 6 white stripes represent the thirteen original American colonies.
The red stripes represent the blood of those willing to die for country.
The white stripes represent purity and cleanliness of thought, word and deed.
The blue represents truth and justice.
The 50 stars represent the original 50 states.
Flags may be dissected before retirement, but the blue star field should never be cut as it represents the union of the fifty states, which must not be broken.
Taps may be played by a bugler during incineration, and observers should stand at reverent attention.
A flag’s ashes should be gathered and buried.