PERRYVILLE — When done properly, each fold in an American flag has meaning, one centered around the history of the United States and all the sacrifices made to get and keep a free country.
Members of the Sons of the American Legion Squadron in Perryville are on a mission to make sure current and future generations understand the flag is more than a series of stars and stripes sewn into a pattern. Working with members of Boy Scout Troop 144, Dave Hullihen, state detachment commander for SAL in Maryland, recently demonstrated that folding ceremony.
“There are 13 folds, and every fold has a meaning,” he said as Michael Osborne, Jacob Plott, Jarad Thomas and Joshua Carter took the flag in hand to begin the folding.
Working carefully, almost reverently, to get the folds neat and crisp, the young men folded the flag first in half lengthwise, then again before beginning the tri-corner fold that ends with only the stars visible.
“The first fold of our flag is a symbol of life,” Hullihen said. “The second fold signifies our belief in eternal life.”
This is the ceremony many see at a military funeral, complete with a 21-gun salute and the playing of “taps.” Lifted from the casket of the deceased, the American flag would be folded 13 times before being presented to the family.
“The third fold is made in honor and tribute of the veteran departing our ranks and who gave a portion of his or her life for the defense of our country to attain peace,” Hullihen read.
Osborne, Carter and Thomas held tightly to the flag as Plott gently made each fold.
“The sixth fold is where our hearts lie. It is with our heart we pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America ...”
“The eighth fold is a tribute to the one who entered into the valley of the shadow of death, that we might see the light of day ...”
The folding ceremony honors the men and women left behind to mourn and the Judeo-Christian ideals many founders embraced.
The 13th and final fold, which tucks the end of the flag into a pocket to form the triangle — with the white stars against the field of blue — are to recall the national motto, “In God We Trust.”
Bear Weinzirl, former commander of the SAL squadron at the American Legion Susquehanna Post 135 in Perryville, said more people need to understand the significance of the flag and have respect for it.
“To me, it’s not freedom of speech to burn a flag,” Weinzirl said of the controversial protest act. “There’s not a law against it, but it’s frowned upon.”
It was the American Legion that struck the U.S. Flag Code in 1923, which outlines how to handle, display and dispose of the stars and stripes.
“There was an Americanism Commission with 68 people on it,” Weinzirl said, noting that in 1942 the United States adopted the code nationally. “The American Legion is fighting to get the flag amendment into the Constitution to make it against the law to desecrate the flag.”
When you see hundreds of people carry a flag onto a football field, that is a violation of the code: “The flag should never be carried flat or horizontally, but always aloft and free.”
It’s also against etiquette to emblazon the flag on a beer can, bikini or paper plate, but it’s done nonetheless. Weinzirl said too many people don’t even know the basics of how to properly display the stars and stripes.
The U.S. flag is always flown higher than other flags, such as state, local and ceremonial flags. If on one pole, there is a hierarchy with the American flag on top.
“The POW/MIA flag goes higher than the Maryland flag, because prisoners of war and missing in action were from everywhere,” Weinzirl said.
When on a series of poles on a dais, the U.S. flag is at the extreme left with all other flags to the right. If the flag is hung on a wall or from a scaffolding, the stars should be in the top left corner.
The flag can be flown constantly if it is lit in darkness. Otherwise, the flag is only flown from sunrise to sunset.
“When you raise the flag, you raise it briskly and lower it slowly,” Hullihen said.
When flags are to be flown at half-staff — which happens at the orders of the president to mark the passing of a dignitary or a national tragedy — the American flag goes to the top of the pole briefly before being lowered to the halfway point.
A flag flying upside down is considered a distress signal, he said.
In the current climate, there have been demonstrations and protests in which people have stood on, defaced or burned a flag.
“We need to treat the flag with all the respect it deserves,” Hullihen said.
Even the teenagers in Troop 144 understand the significance of the flag.
“We learned when we first joined Scouts,” Thomas said, “the flag is more than just a flag. It represents all the people that fought and died for us.”
Hullihen was impressed.
“I couldn’t have said that better myself,” he said.
At your own home or business, when the flag is taken down it need not be folded 13 times. Just fold it neatly and place it in a location where it won’t touch the ground. According to etiquette, once a U.S. flag touches the ground it must be burned.
“And Post 135 has a flag replacement program. If you have a flag that is unserviceable, we will give you a new one in trade,” he said.