A Flag Over Jemez

by Iain Woessner

It was a sun-soaked, breezy morning in Jemez Pueblo. A lone dog limped between adobe structures, some ancient, others modern. Children peered out from the corners and small yards, a few waving, others shyly observing as our Volvo rumbled down the dusty roads to our destination.

It was the morning of August 9, 2014 and we were there to see that a promise was kept.

Circe Woessner was a bit nervous, going over her short speech for the third time. I watched the town and took in the atmosphere. It was quiet. It seemed almost empty. Our guide parked her truck and we did the same, and she greeted us warmly. Hands were shaken; introductions were made. I didn’t know anyone outside my immediate family, but we all felt welcome.

We had come to Jemez to deliver a flagpole. The back of our car was weighed down by 240 pounds of quick-drying cement, but that weight was nothing compared to the pole itself—an immense pillar of jagged aluminum, strapped onto the back of a pick-up truck, driven by veterans, members of American Legion Posts 69 and 75. Side by side the men from the two posts and some men from Jemez Pueblo did the heavy lifting, reminiscent of the iconic image of Iwo Jima and its legendary flag raising.

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Our pole was quite a bit larger than that in Iwo Jima, and took a few extra men to raise. In that distant island seven decades ago, the soldiers didn’t mix cement or have a town suddenly materialize around them—our gathering came with serene swiftness. What I had thought was an empty village, was anything but–a collection of native peoples and veterans, a mix of races and cultures, all united—quite literally—under a single flag.

As a military brat, I identified immediately what was at work here. I recognized the togetherness, I understood this culture—the culture of those whose loved ones had served, those who pledged allegiance to the flag, and those who stood together under its banner to give thanks, to remember, to recognize, and to honor.

Everyone was polite. Warm smiles, gentle handshakes; laughter. Some hadn’t seen each other for awhile. Many were family; many more were friends. Some had served together. Many of the men called each other by rank. There were two trumpets, three rifles, and each sounded a brief song as the flag rose and the flag was lowered.

It was a bit harrowing to watch this flagpole—itself a converted streetlight, specifically chosen so as to withstand the strong winds of the Jemez region. It was thicker and taller than any flagpole I’ve ever seen. But that was the only difference—a stronger foundation to hold aloft a familiar set of colors. This flag was why we were all here. This flag was the one thing that bound every person there together, for one reason or another.

A flag is a fragile thing, little more than cloth and dye. All of its significance is lent to it by those who bear it, or those who behold it. Like any symbol, it means something different to different people. For many there, it was a memory of a loved one long passed on. A warrior who fought in the greatest war in living memory, and who’d came back to tell the tale, to marry his sweetheart and to raise his family. His widow now trembled as she watched the flag she’d been promised swiftly ascend to its lofty perch. She dabbed at tears in her eyes.

 

She placed her hand upon the flag, and swore to protect it from any foe. The watchful veterans stood in solemn solidarity. I’m not a veteran and I can’t possibly imagine what it felt like for them. But I could see their pride and sincerity. The flag had brought us all together, but the power of this moment came from the hearts of the assembly, from the warmth and life of the people standing beneath it.

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Infants fussed and children shied away from the report of the rifles as they gave salute. As quickly as it had started, the ceremony ended. We all hugged and shook hands, refreshments were served, and one by one we all went our separate ways.

We were thanked—we being the Museum of the American Military Family—but the true gratitude should have been given to the men who lifted that immense pole to the sky, narrowly dodging a power line. A golden eagle sparkled at its summit, and the old men held the pole steady while their comrades mixed the cement around its base. They did the heavy lifting. They did the work. The thanks was theirs to have.

All we did was to keep a promise, a promise Circe had made three years ago, a promise kept—better late than never. Speeches were made, a short one by her, and a longer one by the honored widow’s son, who had traveled all the way from Tucson, Arizona to see this flag rise.

Coming from life in a big city, it was moving to see a community come together like this. A natural union of people, who all knew each other’s names,. Some were neighbors. Some worked in the town, some lived nearby, and others were, like us, visitors from the city. But when that flag rose, we all rose with it. For a brief moment, we were all neighbors, we were all friends and we were all family. For a brief moment, there was no difference between soldier and spouse, parent and child. Without acknowledgment, it seemed we all understood that together we’d served, under the red white and blue of that same flag.

It is a moment I shall not forget for a long time.

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