Flag Stuff

How many times has this happened to you?
You awake to yet another glorious Arizona dawn. You tumble out of bed and immediately engage in your ritual, 40-second sitz bath, splash on some brisk perfume or aftershave, wink into the mirror and stride out to the garage to retrieve your neatly folded Arizona state flag from the special shelf where it has rested since being lowered yesterday at dusk.

You lift the banner reverently and continue striding, directly out to your personal flagpole.

You unfurl the sacred cloth as you do every day--but just a second. What's that down there on the seam of the thing? Why, it's frayed, slightly tattered, a bit worse for wear and tear. Ripped, even.

Your lower lip almost begins to tremble, but you muster the fortitude to keep it firm.

"Oh, well," you think, "another flag has flown its last."
Back in the garage, you approach your special cedar chest that holds spare Arizona state flags, pluck one out, affix it to the flagpole and raise it into the cloudless blue sky that attracts so many tourists to our wonderful state each year.

Now here's the problem: How to dispose of the old, worn-out flag?
Sure, most citizens know that if it's the Stars and Stripes that needs destroying, United States Code Title 36, Chapter 10, section 179 delineates the precise procedures involved. Songs, prayers, recitations, methodical cutting and burning of the Red, White and Blue.

But this is the Arizona flag. There are no rules, are there? Yet you want to show respect, right? You don't want to just lob the highflying beauty into the trash along with all those empty amyl nitrate poppers and back issues of Soldier of Fortune.

Of course not. And now, thanks to legislative resolution 1011--Worn Arizona Flags; Proper Disposal of--you don't have to.

It was back in 1917 that Nan D. Hayden, Arizona's answer to Betsy Ross, put needle and thread together to sew the first state flag. She was working from a model created by colonel Charles W. Harris, familiar to Arizona adjutant-general buffs as Arizona adjutant general from 1912 to 1918, and then again from 1923 to 1928. In his spare time away from general-adjutanting, the colonel was also keen on flag design.

He concocted one for the Arizona Rifle Team, and it was such a hit with the fellows that it was decided that our state flag should look almost identical.

Artistic Colonel H.'s stunning ensemble incorporated a field of blue symbolizing Arizona's membership in the United States, lovely swaths of red and gold representing the colors carried by Spanish conquistadors during their North American getaway in 1540, a simply smashing copper-hued star highlighting not--as some have suggested--the colonel's unique eye for color, but Arizona's bountiful copper output, the largest in the country, thank you very much. To finally complement the whole package with just the right touch of homespun dramatic flair, our man added the rays of the setting sun.

Yet from that historic day in 1917 when Nan bit off the last piece of blue thread and stepped back to admire her handiwork, up to February 3 of this year, anyone wanting to get rid of a used Arizona flag in a formal, sanctioned fashion would have been out of luck.

Remarkable but true.
God only knows how many dilapidated state banners have wound up in Dumpsters, or ended up faded and forgotten in musty attics.

What did it take to remedy this situation? A patriotic lobbying group? A high-powered government official? Some benevolent corporate sponsor?

No. It took a Girl Scout.
It took Rachel Nye, 16-year-old 11th grader from Globe, Arizona, who is interested in musical theater, opera and "traveling around the world."

And she is also interested in the proper destructive treatment of our flag, Old Azzy.

For years, scouting organizations have been among the proud destroyers of shabby United States flags, going through the choreographed ritual time and time again. One day, Nye and her fellow scouts were making a dead-flag sweep, going from business to business collecting flags that were ready for the honorable fire pit.

"There was one business we went to and they didn't have any U.S. flags, but they had an Arizona flag and they didn't know what to do with it," Nye explains.

Simple research revealed that there were no rules on the books. Consequently, Nye was in search of a Gold Project, something one does to achieve the highest level of Girl Scoutdom, similar to the rank of Eagle Scout.

Nye had her Gold Project.
Based on the rules and regulations for U.S. flag retirement found in the Girl Scout handbook, Nye drafted a version for Arizona flags--"It was my idea and I wrote the whole thing." This came to the attention of state Senator Ruth Solomon of Tucson, who shepherded the resolution through the proper channels.

Then, on February 4, the House and Senate adopted resolution 1011, and the dream--the Gold Project--became a reality. For the record, this is a suggested means of flag disposal; if you really want to throw Old Azzy in the garbage, the flag police aren't going to be conducting midnight trash-can raids armed with flashlights and arrest warrants.

At this point, you're probably standing there with your shredded flag saying, "Okay, okay, so what do I do with this thing?"

Allow me to give a succinct breakdown from the resolution itself:
1. The ceremony begins with a welcome or an opening statement indicating that those in attendance have gathered to pay their last respects to the retiring Arizona state flag.

2. A prayer is optional, but the Pledge of Allegiance to the U.S. flag is mandatory. Don't forget about that.

3. A short history of the Arizona state flag is appropriate, followed by a song and a statement that indicates that proper respect for the worn flag dictates that it be burned with reverence.

4. Things pick up here. Two people hold the flag as a third person cuts off the stripes one at a time.

5. The cut stripes are placed on the fire one by one as the names of the 13 original colonies are called out. You know what they are, so I won't list them here.

6. The copper star is cut out and placed on the fire. Then the rest of the flag is placed on the fire.

7. Another song may be sung, followed by a benediction.
8. Then all of the participants remove their clothing and dance barefoot among the burning coals as the Decree of Ninharsag--commandments from the Sumerian mother-goddess of animal birth and all growing things--is read in a high-pitched whine by a predesignated member of the proceedings, preferably one who is chaste, and has at least a decent working knowledge of the Babylonian Tablets of Destiny.

I threw that last one in myself.

Which brings us to this question: What have Arizonans been doing with all those filthy, worn-out flags for the past 80 years?

Among other things, Nye had told me, "People give their flags to dry cleaners. There's a box of flags at some dry cleaners."

Could humble dry-cleaning establishments really be the secret resting place of hundreds of unwanted flags? I had to find out, so I called all the dry cleaners in the phone book with names that seemed to be somewhat patriotic.

Missy at Pride Cleaners: "We've never had any in here like that. We don't hardly get a lot of flags in at all."

Margie at Sparkle Town: "Unh, unh."
Marie at Celebrity Dry Cleaning: "We've never had a state flag."
Wanda at Classy Cleaners: "We get state flags from Tournament Players Club in Scottsdale. When the seams come out, our alteration lady redoes them."

Bill at Dry Clean USA: "Huh? Yeah, we do that, we get 'em off and on. Not much, though."

Someone with an Asian-sounding accent at Big Apple Cleaners: "Let me check." Pause. Then someone else: "Hello, do you clean state flags?" Me: "That's what I was asking you." Dial tone.

Then I spoke with Pamela Swift, owner/operator of Swift Flag Repair Service. Swift has been under contract with the State Capitol to care for all its flags since the mid-'70s. I asked her what she did with worn flags.

"The U.S. flags we give to Boy Scout troops 'cause they practice official burning on them. The other flags, we just put 'em in the trash."

Other flags? Like the state flag of Arizona, for God's sake?
"I don't see anything wrong with that," Swift clarified. "I'm more offended when I see flags that are ripped or faded. . . . You'd be surprised how many people don't want to keep a presentable-looking flag. Big companies, big hotels, fast-food chains. They just throw a flag up there and forget it.

"I just wish that there could be a law introduced that if you're going to fly that flag, it should be flown in a presentable manner. They never seem to get onto that. I mean, just drive around and look at some of the horror stories that are on flagpoles."

Swift had not heard of resolution 1011, so I read the procedure to her.
"And this is what they want done every time an Arizona flag needs to be destroyed?" she said, gasping.

"Well," I said, "it's not a law, it's just if you want to be a good citizen."

"So where does that leave the rest of us?" Swift muttered. "My Lord. It sounds scary. I'm afraid that people will read that and say, 'Oh, God, here we were going to get an Arizona flag, better not get one because we don't have time to go through all that ritual.'"

All that ritual took place on the Capitol grounds, on Statehood Day, February 14. It happened at nine in the morning, and I was there.

So was Rachel Nye, and a number of Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, onlookers, a fire and a worn Arizona flag. Actually, it didn't look that bad to me, a few threads and a seam hanging off one side. Kind of sexy, like it had been through a small war or something.

Then I thought about what Nye had told me . . . When it's too worn out, or if it's torn or faded and it doesn't look nice. That's when you should retire it.

Okay. The Boy Scouts stood in a solemn line behind the fire as Nye stepped up to the microphone. She read a statement, but there was no song, no Pledge of Allegiance. Various people approached the flag, held out by Nye's two sisters, both Girl Scouts. The selected cutters handed a pair of scissors back and forth, slicing off pieces of flag in proper order, then dropping them into the fire.

There was a guy dressed as a Buffalo Soldier, a woman from the American Association of Retired People, a couple Daughters of the American Revolution.

The smell of burning fabric filled the morning, and I did not love it. Neither did those Boy Scouts, as the stench blew into their faces. Yet they stood firm. Then it was over, the Scouts doused the smoldering ashes with water from official pails, and I left.

And there you have it. No longer will citizens be thrown into a quandary over an Arizona State Flag, Proper Disposal of. As I walked back to my car, past the tank and battle-ready helicopter that had been planted in the street in front of the Capitol for Statehood Day celebrations, I glanced back at the crisp, fresh state flag whipping in the breeze atop the building. It looked good. For now.


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Peter Gilstrap
Contact: Peter Gilstrap