Friday, September 15, 2006

Throwing flags at FedEx

Three cheers for the red, white and blue. And another three!

After nearly nine years of living in Washington, I went to my first Redskins game this week. Not just any Redskins game, either. The season opener. On Monday Night Football. Against the Minnesota Vikings, the team I grew up rooting for and will grow old waiting for to return to the Super Bowl. All this was possible because way back in the spring, when the 2006 schedule was first announced, my wife got me a pair of tickets for our third anniversary. Because that's the kind of wife she is. I can't remember what I got her. Some aspirin, I think, and a set of those little things shaped like corn cobs that you use to hold your corn on the cob. Because that's the kind of husband I am.

Not only was it the season opener and the first matchup of the ESPN era of MNF, the game was also played on the fifth anniversary of 9/11. I had no doubt that the game would (and, of course, should) include some kind of commemoration. I didn't realize that I was expected to be part of it, and that my role in it was going to get me chewed out by a drunk before I even had a chance to sit down. But as they say, we're living in a whole new era.

(This is a good time to stop and emphasize that I love my country and hate terrorists. The events of Sept. 11, 2001, were indescribably awful, and all of us were touched in some way. The Pentagon was less than 3 miles from the apartment where I was living on 9/11. I walked down to the Key Bridge to watch as the Pentagon burned and fighter jets screamed overhead. It was a horrible, horrible day.)

Tracy and I got to gaudy FedEx Field with time to spare and were frisked unenthusiastically at the gate. Satisfied that my seven-months-pregnant wife was not carrying anthrax or nunchucks or whatever they were after, the minimum wage crew allowed us inside. Upon entering, we each had an American flag shoved into our hands. Not a little postcard-sized flag, either. These were the size of face towels, at least. Not that we'd, you know, wipe our faces with them.

(And let me say I love the flag, too. I love it best when it's flying atop a flagpole, getting raised at the Olympics or being carried by a color guard. I'm less a fan of those times when someone hands you a flag unexpectedly, and then it's your responsibility for the next three hours.)

FedEx Field doesn't allow you to carry backpacks, large purses, duffel bags, briefcases, or anything else in which you could hide a granola bar or an inexpensive bottle of water, so we were pretty well loaded down with crap already. I was carrying binoculars, an eyeglasses case, a jacket, a pack of Fruit Gushers (I win this time, Snyder!) and a few other things. Before reaching our seats, we also picked up a bottle of $5 water, two hot dogs, a brat, a pretzel and a large soda. And each of us now had a 2-foot flag, with a little pole, tucked under our arms.

We got to our seats, and there was trouble in the air. Carrying that much stuff, there's just no way you can get settled in without putting something down. And because all the other seats were occupied, "putting something down" meant putting it on the ground. I put the jacket down, the binoculars, the Diet Coke, the water. I needed to take off my sweatshirt. Something had to give. I sure as shit wasn't going to put the hot dogs on the ground. So I handed the food to Tracy and set the flags down for only a second so I could get my sweatshirt off.

(I was a Boy Scout. I learned all the rules about the flag. I learned how to fold it, how to display it, how to care for it, how to dispose of it properly. I also learned that the flag, or its likeness, should never be used as wearing apparel, should never be draped over the body, should never be used as an advertisement and should never be used as a decoration. Trust me, I know that when displaying the flag, it should never be allowed to touch the ground or anything else beneath it. But I wasn't displaying the flag. It was still rolled up and wrapped with tape. The guy who handed it to me at the gate was pulling them out of a box sitting on the ground. If he can say he was storing those flags, then dammit I was storing mine.)

As I set the flags down to take off my hoodie, I turned to Tracy and started to say that I needed to make this quick because some busybody was going to give me a hard time about setting the flags down. I didn't have time to complete the thought, however, because some busybody came along and gave me a hard time about setting the flags down. He was in his 50s or early 60s, had a Minnie Mouse tattoo on his arm and was already two and a half sheets to the wind. "You shouldn't let the flag touch the ground!" he barked. "It's disrespectful!" Then he tottered up the stairs in pursuit of more beer.

You know what else is disrespectful to the flag? How about treating it like a party favor? How about putting a sticker on it that says "MADE IN CHINA"? Because as my wife and I stared at each other in slack-jawed, goggle-eyed amazement, I happened to notice just such a sticker on the little pole the flag was attached to. The flags handed out in the nation's capital on the fifth anniversary of 9/11 were made in the People's Republic of China. Red China, our forefathers called it. Ain't no party like a Communist Party, 'cause a Communist Party don't stop.

But whatever. I'd put the flags on the ground knowing full well I might get an earful, and I got an earful. Life goes on. We eventually got ourselves settled in, and we found a nifty little crack between our seats where the flags could stand upright without falling over or invading anyone else's personal space. As the game progressed, we saw that we weren't alone. All 90,000 fans in the stadium were arranging their evenings around keeping the flags out of harm's way. People heading up to the concourse for beer (and beer, beer and more beer) would do a little hesitant dance, torn over whether to leave their flags behind. Most would leave them, but not before making sure they'd stay in place if joggled. I don't want to know how the men who carried the flags into the toilet handled the situation. One fellow in the row ahead of us had an inspired solution. He just kept his flag in the back pocket of his white jeans, even when sitting. He may have spent the whole game farting into Old Glory, but he didn't let it touch the ground.

An hour from game time, there were twin commotions down on the playing field. On the sidelines almost directly in front of us, ESPN's Monday NFL Countdown crew was doing their show. Michael Irvin appeared to have already forgiven Tom Jackson for that whole are-you-retarded thing. Farther down the field, toward the other end zone, an enormous crowd was gathered. I pointed it out to my wife and wondered whether they were 9/11 survivors or families, who I assumed would appear in either a pregame or halftime tribute. They weren't. We never found out exactly what was going on down there, but I highly suspect this had something to do with it. There was no pregame tribute that I noticed. Then again, news reports said there was supposed to be an Apache helicopter flyover, but I didn't see one. I'm starting to wonder if I'm the crazy one. What couldn't be missed was The Star-Spangled Banner sung by the Joint Military Chorus, accompanied by 90,000 American flags being waved in unison. That was a remarkable sight, even for a cynical bastard like me.

Everyone appeared to be on the same page that the national anthem is a perfectly acceptable time to wave the flag. The song is about the flag. There was less consensus, however, about using the flag as a visual noisemaker, both pro-Redskins (rapid waving, side-to-side) and anti-Vikings (vigorous shaking). Scouts like me will tell you that's not an appropriate use of the Stars and Stripes. The flag doesn't belong to any one group of Americans. It belongs to all of us. Someone tell the politicians. When the Skins were introduced, a number of fans began waving their flags like it was the Olympics. From several rows back, someone screamed "Put your flags down!" I don't think he was complaining about his view being blocked, either. It might have been the Minnie Mouse tattoo guy. He was on a beer run pretty much all through the pregame and into the first quarter.

The pregame festivities wrapped up with Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, serving as an honorary coin flipper. One of the cool things about living in Washington is that when they say a VIP is coming, you can be sure that the P is going to be V fucking I. General Pace was accompanied by a young Redskins fan who, like your typical 8-year-old, shrugged off the general with row after row of medals and instead stared in awe at the guys in football costumes. After the coin toss, the lad bolted for the sidelines, and the general had to kind of reel him in. There's something totally endearing about seeing the most powerful uniformed military officer in the world, in his dress blues, trotting after a fourth-grader.

It wasn't until halftime that we learned via the public address system who was responsible for handing out 90,000 Chinese-made American flags at FedEx Field. Surprise: FedEx! Having figuratively wrapped itself in the flag, the company proceeded to do so literally as dozens of FedEx employees unfurled a field-sized flag while the Redskins cheerleaders -- some in red, white or blue dresses, others in flag-themed halter tops, I shit you not -- did an interpretive dance to Lee Greenwood's bathetic God Bless the USA. The dreariness of the Greenwood anthem was especially apparent because it immediately followed a stunning performance of God Bless America by Isaac Ho'opi'i, a Pentagon police K-9 officer who saved the lives of 20 people on 9/11 and received the Congressional Medal of Valor. As he sang, the names of the victims from the Pentagon appeared one by one the scoreboard. Ho'opi'i gave me goosebumps. Greenwood made my skin crawl. But then again, he always has.

The game itself proved to be a sloppy affair. The Redskins were able to stay in it because Troy Williamson caught nothing but air when it counted and the Vikings killed themselves with penalties in the first half. The Vikings were able to stay in it because Mark Brunell was helpless on third down and the Redskins killed themselves with stupid penalties in the second half. Someone had to win, and it turned out to be the Vikings, 19-16. Cue the absurdly high hopes in Minnesota and the absurdly panicked response in Washington.

As we filed out of the stadium, I tucked our flags into my back pocket for the short walk to the shuttle bus that would take us to the Landover Metro station. I told myself to remember to take them out once we were on the bus so I wouldn't sit on them. In my mind, that really is worse than letting the flag touch the ground. Just as I think using the flag as a bedspread, which many "patriotic" people do, is worse than letting it touch the ground. But that's just me and my opinion. It's a free country. Thank God.

By the time I got to the bus, someone had stolen the flags out of my pocket.

1 comment:

Rich L said...

Good god Paul,I was LMAO as I read this. Great eyewitness account. Was it HARD to find that photo of Lee Greenwood???? HeyZeus Christo!!!