My husband became an American citizen this past week, a moment of pride and pleasure for us both–and for the 12 friends who attended the ceremony with us. Wearing his kilt and a broad smile, my beloved took the oath, renounced all foreign potentates, and became a vote-wielding US of A-er.
Meanwhile, my editor and I are racing toward the finish line of delivering my manuscript on time. And in trying to get that narrative to arc its back without hissing, we took out a couple of stories. One of them is so gosh-darn funny AND so timely to Jack’s new status, that we thought it would make a good blog post instead.
Here is the (typical small town) story of “Flaggate,” which will not be appearing anywhere else this season. I should add that Jack and I AND the attendees of the ceremony find this is a sweet and funny story, not a chance to make fun of anyone or anything. Basking as we are in the glow of our newest American, we love to retell this tale. Enjoy!
My husband is a laid-back, mellow person, embodying the gentle-soul-in-a-baggy-sweater image of the wise old bookseller. It takes a lot to rile him. So when our town exploded over the simple issue of whether or not to have a farmers market, Jack watched the whole thing with silent bemusement.
Such shenanigans for so little! Henry Kissenger correctly suggested that people fight harder when the stakes are smaller. The town factions pulling at each other (about local farmers selling healthy foods to people who wanted to buy them) resembled nothing so much as parents of kindergarteners arguing over which team would bat first in the Little League Goodwill Games.
One fine day Jack closed the newspaper on an article ridiculing the “Market Master” plan, and said he was going to the town council to voice his support, along with others in favor of the idea. And off he went.
The town council had never met anybody like Jack—literally. As with many small towns, Big Stone tends to be a place where those who are different—like, say, the man who lives with his mother past the age of 30 and vacations annually at Fire Island—fly below the radar until the glorious day someone says, “Yeah, they’re weird, but they’re ours.”
Visitors to Big Stone still have the local Jewish family pointed out to them. A minister caught in a compromising position prompted folk to drive by his house throwing underwear onto his lawn until he left town. (Likely the poo-pants flingers later rounded up their offerings and donated them to the poor, being caring Christian souls.) Europeans and Asians use our bookshop as an informal support group, a place to talk about that “y’all ain’t from here” wall that foreigners—a group encompassing those from India to Kentucky—each hit at some point.
So as Jack spoke his support for the market, the council listened with quizzical looks on their faces. He repeated his words, slower this time, trying to flatten his Scottish accent for untuned ears. Other Friends of the Market members echoed him with fewer glottal stops. It worked; the town agreed to relinquish a centrally-located parking lot as a location, and offered a small stipend for getting the market going. No mess, no fuss, no bother.
Except, in the aftermath, a campaign started to undo all that. Jack, who by then had joined the market’s Board of Directors, received a letter from a local merchant, calling him an illegal alien and swearing the writer “would see your green card revoked and you in Hell, Mr. Big Shot Irish Man.”
Back Jack had to go as the market board’s president, and re-request the council’s assistance, since the decision had become “disputed.” If he had any doubts as to how deep feelings ran, they ended when Garth (a benevolent council member) pulled him aside just before the meeting and asked, “Jack, would you mind putting your hand over your heart during the Pledge of Allegiance?”
Jack became momentarily befuddled. In our tiny town, Quakers (which Jack and I are) were just weird enough to sometimes be confused with religious groups who object to pledging the flag. But his council friend clarified. “Two of the other councilors said it was ‘disrespectful’ of you as a foreigner to stand with your hands at your side during Pledge.”
Ours is a patriotic town.
Jack put his hand over his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance, and two of the council members looked over their shoulders at my husband–twice. Standing next to him, I couldn’t help myself. My own hand had up to this point maintained a correctly American position—although it probably should have been over my mouth. The second time they looked back, I took my hand from my heart to twirl my fingers in a wave, smiling brightly.
Neither of them looked again.
Jack laughed it off, but I seethed for days. Big-hearted and easy-going, my husband had never disrespected anyone in his life; he just wanted to help build something good for the town, namely this farmers market so many people had asked for. So I researched what foreigners were supposed to do during the American Pledge of Allegiance, and brought Jack my findings.
“According to the U.S. Code of Conduct, non-Americans should stand quietly with their hands at their sides, facing the flag.”
Jack smiled and took the printout from my hands. “Let it go, Wendy.”
I tried, I really did, but using patriotism as a shield for flat out being meaner than a rattlesnake in the rain irked. Of course, I had underestimated my husband—as had the councilors. Without telling me, he went to their meeting a third time, to thank them for finally agreeing to support the market.
Standing in front of the chamber’s long curved table on its raised dais, Jack said, “It appears that I behaved disrespectfully to you on a previous visit. I am not from this country, and when you pledged allegiance, your flag’s Code of Conduct states that I should have stood facing the flag with my hands at my side, silent and respectful. Instead, I put my hand over my heart. I most sincerely apologize for this, and hope that no one has taken offense. Please be assured I will properly show respect at all future salutes in the way your United States Code of Conduct stipulates.”
One of the councilors who had been checking Jack’s hand position couldn’t find anywhere to put his eyes; his partner reshuffled papers with deep concentration. The rest of the panel looked either baffled or amused. Garth hid a grin behind his coffee mug. The mayor, a cheerful woman who would have liked people to believe our region less bigoted than circumstances sometimes suggested, let her smile reach her eyes as she thanked Jack for coming, culminating with, “We are lucky to have the diversity you add to our town.”
A murmur of assent rippled around the assembly, while councilor number two still couldn’t get his papers in order.
Keith Fowlkes, one of my friends from the nearby college, often quotes his favorite Chinese proverb: “Ma ma, hoo hoo.” This translates idiomatically two ways: put simply, it is a nice expression for “mediocre at best,” but its more complex etymology suggests that, in life, some days one is the horse, some days the tiger.
I think my husband must be the gentlest tiger in the world.