ELLSWORTH, Maine — “The Stars and Stripes.” “The Star-Spangled Banner.” “The Red, White and Blue.” The Flag of the United States of America.
Whatever one calls it, there are few symbols so iconically American. It is the central subject of the national anthem. So powerful is the symbol that American politicians and public officials have been chastised as unpatriotic for appearing in public without one pinned on their lapel.
In Ellsworth, members of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 109 have taken the mantle of being custodians of Old Glory. They are the stewards of the flag on display at the city’s Civil War Memorial on Bridge Hill. Along with American Legion Post 63, they replace each graveside flag at Woodbine Cemetery every Memorial Day.
They also collect residents’ worn, tattered, frayed or faded flags for proper disposal. It’s a service they’ve provided for decades, facilitated recently by the construction of four wooden flag disposal boxes placed throughout the city.
Every week, the VFW unlocks the boxes — located one each at Shaw’s, Marden’s, City Hall, and Post 109’s hall on Main Street — and removes the flags. They regularly fill an entire trash bag with the flags, which are brought back to the hall for storage until enough are gathered for disposal.
On Veterans Day, Post 109’s quartermaster, Sgt. 1st Class Louis Tonero, was preparing for the weekly Bingo Night at the hall. He took some time off to describe the group’s flag disposal program, saying the VFW collects about 100 flags through the disposal boxes each month.
“You’d be surprised by how many people are still patriotic, and still care,” said Tonero, a retired Marine and National Guardsmen who served in Vietnam.
He sifted through a pile of trash bags, each filled with flags of varying sizes and stages of degradation. He said there were probably about 300 banners waiting to be “retired.” Some colors were so faded that the red stripes and blue canton could hardly be described as such. Others were so frayed they were more fringe than flag.
“They should be bright, just like they’re brand new,” Tonero said of proper flag display. Flags should be “looking good and proud, as we are proud of them.”
When the VFW “gets overrun” with flags, Tonero said, they hold a retirement ceremony. He described a somber, scripted affair, with the kind of reverence and devotion usually reserved for funerals.
During the ceremony, the flags are inspected by the post’s Second Vice Commander, First Vice Commander, and finally the Commander. The flags are noted to have “become unserviceable in a worthy cause.”
A color guard watches as the flags are burned. Their ashes, like those of so many cremated loved ones, will later be buried. The Commander then says these words in eulogy:
“A flag may be a flimsy bit of printed gauze, or a beautiful banner of finest silk. Its intrinsic value may be trifling or great, but its real value is beyond price, for it is a precious symbol of all that we and our comrades have worked for and lived for, and die for — a free nation of free men and women, true to faith of the past, devoted to the ideals and practice of justice, freedom and democracy.”
Tonero said this ceremony, or others like it, are the only proper ways to dispose of an American flag. That’s why the VFW tries to make it easy for people to take care of their old flags the right way. To simply throw one away, he said, is disgraceful.
“It’s the flag of our country, and it should not be destroyed like that, just by throwing it away in the garbage,” he said.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.