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Very moving flag retirement: Crowd murmured as its remnants were lowered onto the campfire
The Firelight Honor - James Fox

When I see a tattered American flag valiantly flying on its staff, I often think back to an inspiring flag retirement my son Jason and I witnessed years ago. I had joined several other families on a trek to a Boy Scout camp to attend the campfire the last night before bringing our sons home from a week of summer-camp. This memorable flag ceremony took place during one of the last campfires held at the old Boy Scout Camp 49'er in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California.

The United States Flag Code requires that worn-out American flags be retired and disposed of with honor, preferably by burning. The United States Armed Forces and their auxiliaries are charged by Congress with the duty of retiring old flags. These organizations have flag retirement ceremonies with specific guidelines to meet the flag code requirement. The Boy Scouts of America, chartered by Congress, is also given the duty of flag retirement. However, the BSA does not mandate a specific ceremony but instead relies on the wisdom and patriotism of its volunteer scoutmasters to perform this duty honorably. The ceremony we witnessed was so moving perhaps because it was presented from the heart of just such a volunteer.

The evening had been full of boisterous songs, silly skits, and camp awards. Following a camp-wide singing of “America,” an old scoutmaster stepped forward and announced the retirement of an American Flag. His beard was streaked with gray, and his red jacket was adorned with patches and awards from camporees long past, but not forgotten. However, it was that old scouter’s short and simple flag retirement ceremony that had a lasting impact on every camper there that night.

Two Eagle Scouts, members of the Order of the Arrow Lodge, brought forward a tattered flag for retirement and the old scouter asked the camp audience to stand as the flag was unfolded and stretched between the two scouts.

The old scouter explained its history: “This flag has flown proudly over the BSA 49'er Council office. She has done her duty well as a symbol - a daily reminder to all who saw her that we are a nation founded by thirteen colonies desiring to live in freedom. Today, like the stars and stripes sewn into this flag, we the people are bound together and united as one nation.”

The scouter opened his pocketknife and the firelight flashed on the blade as he stepped toward the flag. A murmur of concern rippled through the audience as the scouter carefully cut a slit into the blue field. Slipping his hand through the slit to support a star he said, “On the 14th of June, 1777 the Continental Congress of the United States did ordain that our national colors shall consist of a flag with a blue field bearing 13 stars representing a new constellation, the symbol of freedom.” Lifting the cradled star towards the firelight, the scouter continued, “Today the stars in that field of blue number fifty; one for each of the separate states united as one nation.”

He carefully cut a slit through a red stripe, and then a white stripe, and supporting them with his hand the scouter said, “The Continental Congress of those 13 colonies united as a new nation struggling through a war of independence, did ordain that our nation’s flag would also consist of 13 stripes; red separated by white to signify the separation from our mother country and the old allegiances to kings and queens. We would henceforth be forever a self-governing nation of free men and women.”

Stepping aside, raising his knife and folding the blade closed, the scouter stated, “By these rents in her fabric, I have rendered this no longer a flag, but only the tattered remains of our national colors. Tonight, as required by the Flag Code, we shall retire these colors with honor.”

Raising an open hand to his cheek the old scouter called out, “Quartermaster?” A voice from the darkness beyond the light from the campfire answered, “I am here.” The scouter asked, “Quartermaster, has this flag been replaced?” The voice answered “She has been replaced by a new flag, bearing the same symbol of stars and stripes representing our nation. She flies proudly each day.”

The old scouter then issued this charge to the audience; “Let it ever be so, that this flag shall always be replaced with honor. Never let it be that American men and women gather in darkness to burn the last remnant of our civilization. Pledge that now. Join with me in stating your allegiance to our nation and to the symbol of freedom, our American flag.”

As one of the Eagle Scouts lowered the tattered remnants onto the campfire, the other stepped forward to unfurl an American flag on a staff and lift it high, illuminated by the flare of the flames. The Quartermaster’s voice called out from the darkness, “Hand salute... Who Pledges?” And with eyes moist from emotion and hearts beating with patriotic pride, the civilians and veterans, mothers and fathers, daughters and sons gathered there all spoke in unison, “I pledge allegiance ...”

Jim Fox, a former Scoutmaster and the father of an Eagle Scout writes from Lodi California
(Published fnasr Feb. 2006 in The Front Porch section of The Star-Republican, Wilmington, OH )

/////SIDEBAR////\\\\\ *** This article is archived in the Ceremonies Section of the US Scouting Service Project website, with the following SAFETY Considerations *** The rents in the fabric help vent the heat through the flag, preventing it from billowing up and around the edges burning the fingers of the person or persons lowering the flag, still it is best to have them lower it quickly.

Around any campfire always have a bucket of water and learn how to "cast" water by hand rather than immediately dumping the whole bucket.

Also so you DO NOT NICK yourself, you should choose one of these two ideas -

First idea, ahead of time, pre-cut quarter inch rents in the flag, below the lowest star in the right-hand corner of the blue field, then through a white stripe and red stripe toward the center of the flag and just below and to the right of that star; the audience won't see the cuts and it saves you struggling to punch your knife through the fabric.

Second idea, replace the knife, instead raise a small scissors, and add this to the narrative; "It is believed that during a visit in 1777 by members of the flag design committee, Betsy Ross demonstrated that two snips with scissors on a piece of folded cloth would create the five-pointed star that we recognize on our flags and official seals today." (Proceed to fold a bit of the flag, to snip under a star, next fold and snip under a red stripe, then a white stripe, creating the rents in the fabric.)

A FINAL note: this Flag Retirement would work with non-scout youth groups as well; change the call out from "Quartermaster" to "Citizen." ***/////

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