Posted on November 21, 2018
by Steve Janowick

I can remember the day like it was yesterday.

Traumatic episodes have a way of sticking with you.

It was 1995 and our group had just gotten back from a beautiful day of an ugly golf round.  The sun was starting to set in Myrtle Beach, the May breeze was warm, and my older brother and I decided we’d relax in the hotel hot tub before we all went out to dinner later.  A couple of cold brews flanking us and some light-hearted laughs about our pathetic scores. Life was good!

That was until the conversation took a sharp turn.  

Somehow, we drifted into a current-events bent and got on the subject of the recent flag burnings that were being highly publicized in the media at that time.  This was 23 years ago, mind you, when public protests were small potatoes relative to today. Anyway, my brother, who is a proud Army veteran took the immediate, and expected, stance of disgust and utter contempt for the flag burners.  

“Unless they’ve served, they have no right to desecrate something that millions of men have fought and died for.  And I’ll bet my life, none of those pansies ever served!” I could actually see his lower jaw start to clench and his face redden.  This was principled passion for certain. Like many men and women who’ve worn the uniform, the American flag is sacred to them. It’s off limits.  Beyond reproach or criticism. It is the symbol of not just our country and its virtues, but more importantly, the brotherhood that protects that country.  To a service member, the flag is the beacon of honor and duty that he carries with him into battle and it’s the cloak in which the casualties of that battle are draped in when returning home.  

So, when I hit him with my contradicting point of view, it didn’t go over too well.

Let me preface by saying that I was in some weird place in my head and heart at that time.  I was in my mid-20’s, lost, confused and thought I was an idealist. I was different than the close-minded sheep all around me, I thought.  I was enlightened. I was righteous. Validated by self-appointed convictions. I was the second coming of Bob Dylan, man! I was a poet who was going to speak for the little guy and fix all the world’s problems.   

I made the mistake of telling my older, and much bigger at the time, brother that the flag burners were actually more heroic than his military buddies and past veterans.  I argued that under the first amendment of the Constitution, they had every right to express themselves. And if it meant burning a sacred American symbol, even more courageous was the act.  I asserted that their principles and rights were granted the same protections. And I insisted that the flag, although symbolic, was nothing more than a piece of cloth with stars and stripes on it.

To this day, my brother’s reaction to what he had just heard is singed into my consciousness.  His expression was one of sadness, disappointment but, most of all, sheer anger. I think I shocked him.  He wasn’t prepared for that diatribe. In all the years we were on this earth together, I never saw him look at me like that.  There was a drawn out, awkward silence. I knew I had struck a nerve and I also knew I had crossed a line.

He took a big slug off his beer and looked at me with an icy stare.  “You’re my brother and I’ll always love you,” he said. “But you broke my heart with what you just said.  And if you ever say that to me again, I will kick the living shit out of you.” He got up and walked away.

We never talked about it again.

But those words he said to me, and the way he looked when he said it, affected me that day.  They were the catalyst which started my transformation. Something inside me was triggered and, for the next two decades, I started a journey of rediscovery.  I began re-analyzing my whole self. I questioned foundations. Reason. Morality. I also grew up emotionally and intellectually. It’s like the fuses in my brain tripped and the wires in my frontal cortex were reprogrammed, because now, in 2018, I have a 180-degree different belief system regarding certain things.  And the reverence for our great flag is one of them.

I look back at that young man arguing with my brother and I don’t even know him.  I feel a sense of shame and guilt, I have to admit. Not because I argued for certain constitutional rights-which I still believe in today.  But because I let those arguments cloud my capacity to empathize and understand. And, as someone who never served his country, one right I don’t have is discussing the virtues of our flag with a veteran.  

So, every chance I get, I fly my Old Glory high and proud from my house.  Not for some bloated sense of patriotism. I do it to thank my brother, my father and all my friends and family who gave some parts of themselves for the greater good of our country.

And for the men and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice.

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