When patriotism becomes a state of mind

I grew up in a patriotic family with genocide survivors as parents and uncles or cousins who served the military.

Those who flew the American flag kept the spirit visible at all times. Those who didn’t at least rendered a salute.

Our favorite uncle was Sam and nobody could dispute the land of freedom, liberty, and justice.

So, it was with a great deal of chagrin when I recently saw a class of high schoolers show some disrespect for the red, white, and blue.

The students had gathered for a presentation a buddy and I were to give on the Armenian Genocide as part of a mission to promote a curriculum in our public schools.

Because it was 7:30 a.m. and the start of a school day. We were there for opening exercises. There was no prayer to which I was informed. That had been abolished years ago with a discrimination charge.

When it came time to salute the flag, a teacher called for order. Half the students stood. The other half remained seated. Those who didn’t cooperate became a nuisance. They continued chattering and paid no attention to the matter at hand.

Saluting the American flag was not in their discipline, sad to say.

“They don’t consider that cool,” a teacher said. “No matter how hard I’ve tried to get them all involved, it falls far short of the American standard.”

To say I was appalled is an understatement. Was this class an exception?

“On the contrary,” this teacher remarked. “It’s more the rule.”

It set a rather somber note for the remainder of my day. I had four classes to instruct, each running 90 minutes, and my spirit was already deflated. My companion was even more disgusted.

He had fought in Korea and got married on Flag Day. I expected him to burst open with a reprimand but he wisely kept his cool. This was not the time to vent or talk a red, white, and blue streak.

I remember with disdain some years back covering a Veterans’ Day Parade in my city when a group of rabble-rousers decided to create a scene. As the entourage was making its way to the local cemetery for a program, they decided to burn the American flag as a protest against the war in Vietnam.

The proud commander of a service organization and highly decorated war veteran broke formation and headed straight toward the fray. As he was about to pulverize the instigators, police intervened and restored some semblance of order.

As memory recalls, no arrests were made. But the vile act did tarnish the exercises that year, made front-page headlines, and was maligned for years to come.

I had a lot of respect for those United States Olympians who swept the dash one year until they got on the podium with their medals and made a debacle of it during the National Anthem.

A student asked me what my priorities were, given my passion toward ethnicity. Did my heritage come before my citizenship? It posed a rather interesting question to which I made the obvious reply.

“Being an American takes precedence over any nationality,” I reminded the student. “I’m an American-Armenian and not the reverse.”

I fly two flags at my camp. The American is above the red, blue, and orange of the Armenian. Thus, I enjoy the best of both worlds in their proper format.

One of the best awards in my city is rendered by the Haverhill Exchange Club. They call it “Proudly We Hail” and it goes to residents and businesses that fly the American flag. It isn’t always contingent upon size but rather the spirit.

Each year, 8-10 recipients are thrust into the limelight for openly showing their patriotism, hoping it takes on a ripple effect throughout the community.

Two photographs remain prominent in my mind, one taken by Joe Rosenthal of the Marines planting the flag atop Mount Suribachi during World War II, and another of New York firefighters hoisting the flag during the 9-11 tragedy.

Both of these moments are frozen in time.

As a youngster, we would stand by our school desk and salute the flag. As we recited the words “one nation, under God,” nobody made a mockery of it. It didn’t matter what side of the religious fence you were on. Those who didn’t comply at least showed some respect.

For more than two centuries, the flag has remained a prominent icon in our nation’s history, a symbol of strength and unity, pride, and inspiration.

To demean it, deface it, disrespect it is a terrible blow to our reputation. To all those who remain casual to it, including those students I saw, please adopt a new set of values and be proud to be an American.

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Tom Vartabedian

Tom Vartabedian is a retired journalist with the Haverhill Gazette, where he spent 40 years as an award-winning writer and photographer. He has volunteered his services for the past 46 years as a columnist and correspondent with the Armenian Weekly, where his pet project was the publication of a special issue of the AYF Olympics each September.
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