Flag and Country Bumpkins

The demonstration was about what these things always are about--speechifying. There was some fearful music by a group of kids with that shaved, Anglo-Saxon hair thing that's going around. They and their scoutmaster leader belted out, "It fills my heart with rapture that God gave to me."

It was hotter than hell outside, and there wasn't a cold beer within walking distance. One MIT graduate bobby-pinned a couple of paper towels to her hair, thinking that might cool off her about-to-explode skull. Luckily, none of the geezers went into cardiac arrest.

We were duly warned that "they" want to take Bibles out of school and put condoms in.

By the time the statewide president of the Elks said he hoped he would "never see such a provocative display again," people were beelining for the air-conditioned museum.

And that's when the fun started.
I know it's not polite to mock the way someone looks. But it is kind of fun, and, frankly, a lot of these people looked like they crawled out of the pages of an R. Crumb comic book. You just couldn't help but stare. One old veteran standing near the museum entry had cob webs tattooed on both elbows. (Now, I like tattoos, but here's a message for all you teens out there: When you get old and your skin goes all flappy, tattoos are some somber reminders of the time when you still got hickeys.)

The vet was venting when I wandered in.
"I'm not going in there," he said, indicating the rooms with the flag exhibit.

Referring to the flag stuffed in the loo, he explained, "If I go in there, I know I'm going to pull it out."

Two seconds later, he marched up to the Kate Millett piece.
He read the sign describing Millett and learned she was a feminist. "Didn't that just figure?" he said out loud.

After a pause, he asked his sidekick, "Are you ready to go to jail?"
"It wouldn't be the first time," came the reply, and I thought, "Oh boy, hear come the salty road-dog stories."

Instead, the first vet reached between the cell bars of Millett's piece and extracted the flag, which he folded smartly and stored on the top of the artist's display.

Laura Mumby, probably a feminist, reached up, unfolded the flag and jammed it back into Millett's toilet. People cheered.

An artist herself, Mumby said she was furious on previous visits to the show when the flags had been absent from the Millett and Scott displays because veterans had removed them.

"I thought the museum was lame to let these people get away with that," said Mumby. So she and fellow artists camped out at the exhibit with the idea of protecting the work from the veterans. They were not alone.

An incensed witness accused the Legionnaires of acting like Fascist book burners.

"Why don't you go back to Jerusalem, or Ethiopia?" came the rejoinder from yet another vet, who now began to argue loudly with anyone who wasn't a nearly dead veteran.

This fellow was a gem. He's at that point in his life when old men wear caps, even indoors; when a few wisps of hair, each individual strand several inches from its nearest neighbor, slip out the backside of the hat. It's the age when any normal guy starts copying down Kevorkian's 1-800 number.

As the television cameras moved in, this vet started rapping about lesbians and feminists.

"How many of you girls even been in the military?" asked the veteran.
When Susan Barber began to debate the little troll, he told the lady, who is of half-Korean ancestry, that she ought to go back to whatever country it was that she came from.

Barber, natty in her flag-decorated footwear, exploded that she was born in America.

From across the room, two black women asked in loud voices, "Why are the TV cameras focused only on old white men?"

"Bring your nigger faces over here, and they'll film you," said the exasperated veteran. At this point, some pointy-headed liberal told this cracker that he wasn't much of an American.

"We'll take care of you later," threatened the vet.
One young woman who spoke with an accent and defended the show clearly got under the skin of the veterans and their fellow travelers.

"This is very interesting," said Anne McKinney, formerly Anne Haack of Germany. "I've been called an asshole twice today already. My mother grew up in Berlin during World War II. I heard all about the Nazis and free speech from her. . . . I'm a United States citizen now, and I vote in every election, even the little bond elections that no one follows."

People had surrounded all four sides of Millett's jail cell and were arguing heatedly with each other. Faces pushed through the bars as individuals fought over what the flag meant.

It was quite something.
A photographer standing nearby said people normally only get this worked up over sports. It was great, said the man, to see folks so animated, so ready to fight about art and democracy. He thought that Millet's jail cell now looked like one of those free-for-all wrestling cages.

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