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HONORING OUR FLAG

June 13, 2020

Clare and I recently purchased a new flag to display on the front of our home. For years we have proudly hung the flag that draped the casket of Clare’s father, Mr. Jack, Jackson S. Long. Mr. Jack served in the United States Marine Corps during World War II.  His honor flag was presented to Clare at his funeral.

Over time the old flag that served us well for so many years became worn and faded. Made of cotton, the flag could not last forever.

The new flag is fashioned from heavy synthetic material purported to be more durable than the old cotton banner. We hung it on our front porch just before Memorial Day and will display it there until Labor Day. In the near future, we will invite a local Scout troop to help us properly retire the former flag.

Our grandchildren have been keenly interested in the new flag. They enjoy rubbing the shiny surface and watching it blow in the wind. Some of the older children have taken an interest in the history of the flag. Perhaps this brief refresher will help us all.

June 14 is celebrated in the United States as National Flag Day. It commemorates the adoption of the flag of the United States on that date in 1777 by resolution of the Second Continental Congress. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation that officially established June 14 as Flag Day. In August 1949, National Flag Day was established by an Act of Congress. While Flag Day is not an official federal holiday, many Americans mark the day as our family does by displaying the flag. As Flag Day approaches on June 14, these reminders may help us pause and give the flag the honor it deserves.

 The early flags of the United States of America were all hand sewn. Each flag has a unique history. For this Flag Day, allow me to repeat some of those best-known stories.

The Stars and Stripes

Legend holds that George Washington visited Betsy Ross on July 4, 1776, and commissioned her to make the first American flag. Elizabeth Griscom was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She married John Ross in 1773. The couple began an upholstery business together, drawing on her needlework skills.

John Ross was killed in January 1776 on militia duty. Betsy married an American sailor who died as a prisoner of war. Then she married a soldier who died from the wounds of war. Betsy was three times the widow of patriots.  She continued the upholstery business, supporting and rearing her seven daughters.

The story of Betsy Ross’ commission to make the first American flag, as told by her grandson, was first published in Harper’s Monthly in 1873.  The account received wide acceptance. By the 1880s, many school textbooks included the story.

On June 14, 1777, the Second Continental Congress passed the Flag Resolution, establishing the standard for flags of the United States. The wording of that document describes the Stars and Stripes: “Resolved, that the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”

Tradition says that Betsy Ross made the flag, using fabric from a white petticoat, a red shirt, and a blue coat. The colors held symbolic significance – white for purity, red for valor, and blue for loyalty. The stars were placed in a circle to show equality among the original states.

The American flag was lightly regarded during the early years of the nation. Long before it flew on the moon or fluttered over the White House; long before it reached the North Pole or the summit of Mount Everest; long before it was hoisted by Marines at Iwo Jima, folded by an honor guard into a triangle at Arlington National Cemetery, or unfurled by firefighters above the ashes of the World Trade Center, the American ensign was just a patchwork of cloth. That all changed during the War of 1812.

The Star-Spangled Banner

The British fleet made preparations for an attack on the United States. In Baltimore, Major George Armistead at Fort McHenry was ready to defend the harbor. He expressed a desire for a large flag to fly over the fort, one the British could see from out at sea, miles away.

Mary Pickersgill, a prominent Baltimore flag maker, received the order for an oversized American flag to measure 30×42 feet. Pickersgill was an experienced maker of ships’ colors.

She and her assistants spent seven weeks designing and stitching the garrison flag. They sewed by candlelight, sitting on the floor of Claggett’s Brewery, the only space in East Baltimore large enough to accommodate the project. They assembled the dark blue field and the red and white stripes of the flag by piecing together strips of loosely woven English wool bunting.  Each of the fifteen horizontal red and white stripes measured two feet wide.  Each of the fifteen five-pointed white cotton stars measured two feet across. They were sewn into the upper left quarter, forming the flag’s canton, the rectangle of dark blue fabric, which measured 16×21 feet. In all, the giant flag required 300 yards of fabric.

Pickersgill’s flag was flying over Fort McHenry when the British fleet attacked on September 12, 1814. Intense bombardment targeted Fort McHenry on the evening of September 13. Heavy shelling continued for twenty-five hours.  British ships were unable to pass the fort and penetrate the harbor. The attack ended, and the fleet retreated.

An American lawyer, Francis Scott Key, and an aide were aboard the British ship HMS Tonnant as the guests of three British officers. They were there to negotiate the release of prisoners.  Key, his aide, and one released prisoner were not allowed to return to their own sloop because they had become familiar with the strength and position of the British troops. They were detained, in effect making them prisoners. Key had learned of the British intent to attack Baltimore. Because of his detention, he was unable to do anything but watch the bombarding of the American forces at Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore on the night of September 13–14, 1814.

As dawn broke on the morning of September 14, the battered flag still flew above the ramparts of the fort. Francis Scott Key, an amateur poet, celebrated the sight of the flag in verse. His words became our national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Old Glory

In 1820, William Driver, a young sea captain, was presented a flag by his mother in Salem, Massachusetts. The hand-sewn flag was designed to be flown from the mast of the whaling vessel Charles Doggett. The flag had twenty-four stars and included a small anchor stitched in the corner of its blue canton.

As he left the harbor for a trip around the world, Captain Driver was the first to hail the flag as Old Glory. It served as the official flag throughout the voyage.

Driver retired from the sea in 1837 and moved to Nashville, Tennessee, taking his cherished flag with him. He flew his beloved flag on all patriotic occasions. When the Civil War broke out some thirty years later, he stuffed Old Glory as batting inside a comforter to conceal it from the Confederate Army.

The Pledge of Allegiance

In 1985, I traveled with a group of scouts to the National Boy Scout Jamboree.   En route, we visited the Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. We stood gazing at the original Star-Spangled Banner, the same one flown over Fort McHenry that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the words of our national anthem. We marveled at the large size of that tattered flag.

Spontaneously, an Eagle Scout from Georgia snapped to attention, saluted, and recited, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America…” 

Immediately, a host of scouts and other visitors joined in as we honored our flag and affirmed loyalty to our country.

On this Flag Day, we might all salute and pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. And, in this climate of heightened awareness of the need for social justice, pledge ourselves to the great promise and fervent hope of liberty and justice for all.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor.He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

LADYBUG LEGENDS

June 6, 2020

Several years ago, our daughter, Betsy, presented me with a necktie for Father’s Day. Bright yellow, the tie was adorned with a colorful assortment of ladybugs.

“Wear it with a light blue shirt,” Betsy advised. “The ladybugs are cute!”

Even beyond the world of men’s apparel, the bright red beetles with black spots make a fashion statement.

As some of you know, I occasionally try my hand at painting. My children encouraged me even though I am color blind. Because I do best with bright colors and simple subjects, I decided to paint a ladybug. I made the background a bright yellow petal of a gloriosa daisy. The insect needed to be larger than life to capture the details. When the painting was completed, Clare liked it so much that we hung it in a bedroom where our grandchildren take naps and spend the night with us. They, too, appreciated their grandfather’s creation.

My painting pales in comparison with the real thing. In fact, the tiny insect is yet one more example of the delicate, miraculous hand of the divine Creator.

Ladybugs stand out in the Coleoptera family whose members are usually black and brown,

The proper name for these fascinating insects is the ladybird beetle. Over time the name was shortened to lady beetles.  In the United States, they became known as ladybugs. The colorful beetle has been designated as the state insect of South Carolina.

Myths about the ladybird beetle abound. One myth is that if you spot one in your home, it foretells prosperity and good fortune. Another is that the number of ladybugs in your home indicates how many unexpected guests you are soon to host. Mercy!

During the Middle Ages, hordes of voracious insects descended upon the fields and orchards of central Europe. Fearful that all their food crops would be destroyed, people prayed to the Virgin Mary for help.

According to legend, red and black beetles appeared, making a feast of the invading insects, thus saving the crops. People called their winged rescuers the Beetles of Our Lady. Their red wings were said to represent the Virgin’s cloak. The black spots were symbolic of her joys and her sorrows.

Lady beetles are among the most helpful garden predators.  The brightly colored insects picnic on aphids and mealybugs. One tiny ladybug can polish off a hundred aphids in a day!

More than 4000 species are found worldwide. In the United States, the hard shell is usually red with black spots. During flight, the shell opens, allowing the wings to beat up to eighty-five times a second.

Ladybugs hibernate during the autumn and winter in logs or piles of leaves. Sometimes they find shelter beneath the siding of a home. As the spring sun warms them, they may emerge inside the dwelling, causing considerable consternation among residents. Our friends in the pest control business report that the problem is annoying but not serious. Ladybugs are attracted to light-colored houses, especially those having unobstructed southwestern sun exposure. Older homes tend to experience more problems because they lack adequate insulation.

The ladybugs enter through small cracks around windows, doors, and siding, searching for a warm, comfortable spot during cold weather. They congregate in groups during hibernation, so if you see one, you will probably find more. If you can locate their entry point, caulking the small cracks will keep them at bay.

Ladybugs do not eat fabric, plants, or paper. While in the house, they live off of their own body fats. They prefer a little humidity. Because homes generally have low humidity during the winter, most of your ladybug guests will eventually die from dehydration. Occasionally, you might find one in your bathroom getting a drink of water. Smart lady!

The best way to eliminate the unwelcome guests is with a vacuum cleaner.  Use a clean bag, suction them up, and release them outside. The nursery rhyme “Ladybug, ladybug fly away home” was supposed to charm the insects into departing.

Many folks in various cultures consider the presence of a ladybug as a herald of good luck.  Killing one is said to bring sadness and misfortune.

The French believe that if a ladybug lands on you, any ailment you have will fly away with the insect.

In Belgium, it is said that when a ladybug lands on a young woman’s hand, she’ll be married within a year. The black spots on the back of the insect indicate the number of children the couple will have.

When Swiss children ask where babies come from, parents tell them that ladybugs deliver newborn infants. 

In Norway, romance will surely blossom for a man and a woman who spy a ladybug at the same time.

People living in Victorian England believed that a ladybug alighting on your hand predicted that you would receive a new pair of gloves. If one landed on your head, a new hat would soon come your way.

In some cultures, ladybugs were thought to have divine powers. According to a Norse legend, Thor sent the ladybug, riding on a bolt of lightning, as a gift to earth. Some Asian cultures believe that ladybugs understand human language and act as interpreters for the gods.

Many legends in this country harken back to pioneer days. Finding a ladybug in a family’s log cabin during the winter was considered a good omen. Ladybugs even played a part in pioneer medicine.  Ladybugs secrete a foul-smelling fluid to make themselves distasteful to birds.  In the 1800s, some doctors treated measles with that same secretion from the insects.  Physicians also believed that placing a mashed ladybug onto an abscessed tooth would stop throbbing pain.

Farmers say that seeing a large number of flying ladybugs during the spring months is a harbinger of bountiful crops. Folklore suggests that the number of spots on a ladybug found in your home reveals how many dollars you will soon discover. Making a wish, while holding a ladybug in your hand, brings good luck.  Watching the direction it flies off your hand indicates the source of this luck.

Legends notwithstanding, the ladybird beetle is beneficial to home gardeners and commercial farmers.

In the 1880s, a destructive scale insect was killing large groves of lemon and orange trees. The California Citrus Growers released thousands of ladybugs into the orchards. Within two years, the infestation ended, and the trees began to bear fruit again.  Ladybugs saved the entire citrus industry.  Since then, ladybugs have been employed around the world to help control outbreaks of pests.

On one of the first warm days of spring, I was walking in my garden, examining various plants that were off to a fresh start. I paid particular attention to the climbers – scarlet honeysuckle, several varieties of clematis, and the rambling roses. Ordinarily, I will find a few aphids on some of the tender shoots of these vines. One clematis vine, in particular, was heavily infested with these tiny sucking invaders.

Later that day, I purchased a bottle of insecticidal soap. When I returned to the affected clematis, I discovered the plant was covered in ladybugs, feasting on the aphids. I put the spray bottle away, allowing them to dine to their hearts’ content.

Master Gardener Joe Maple taught me that if you kill a beneficial insect, you inherit its job.  When it comes to ladybugs, my motto is borrowed from highway construction crews.

“Let ‘em work. Let ‘em live.”

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor.He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

FOLLOWING DIRT ROADS

May 30, 2020

Several months ago, I read Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads by Paul Theroux, well-known travel writer, Theroux explores the section of America I know best, the Deep South. He discovered a paradoxical place, full of incomparable music, unparalleled cuisine, and fascinating characters. He also found some of the nation’s worst schools, substandard housing, and high unemployment rates. Theroux’ hometown newspaper, the Boston Globe,says of the book, “Deep South is an ode to a region, vivid and haunting, full of life and loss alike.”

This week I heard on the radio the song God’s Country by Blake Shelton. The first few lines are:

Right outside of this one church town

There’s a gold dirt road to a whole lot of nothin’

Got a deed to the land, but it ain’t my ground

This is God’s country.

Paul Theroux’ book and Blake Shelton’s song reminded me of the place where I grew up, Spartanburg County, South Carolina.

The street where our family lived when I was a boy was not a street at all. It was a dirt road. It ran east to west from Mr. Taylor’s dairy farm past Mr. Smith’s cornfield to the shanty of a mysterious woman I was pretty sure was a witch. She had a big black cast-iron pot in her yard where she boiled something, maybe curious boys.

The dirt road in front of our home was a trail to adventure. Toward the east, it became a paved road near a natural gas transfer station, a place surrounded by a chain-link fence with ominous signs warning KEEP OUT. East was the direction to Tommy Wilson’s East End Market and Community Cash grocery store. It was the route I took on my bicycle to go to Monday night Boy Scout meetings.

Toward the west, the dirt road led to a path through the woods, over a creek to a deep gully we called Dead Horse Canyon. That red-clay pit was a marvelous playground.    

Beyond the path to Dead Horse Canyon, the dirt road went to the witch’s shack. The old lady who lived there was probably not a witch at all, but she was at least an eccentric recluse. Rarely did I go that far down the road.

I went all the way to the end when Gordon Coley dared me and promised me half of a Hershey Bar if I would. On that occasion, I heard a shotgun blast. Whether I was the target or not, I can’t say. But I ran all the way home. I never ventured that far again.

Dirt roads hold a special charm. I remember the sadness I felt when our road was paved with asphalt. From then on, it was a street, no longer a road.

I once followed a dirt road through the high mountains of North Carolina. I was so far back in the hills that I thought even some Presbyterians might be snake handlers.

I had been leading a retreat for a church group. We had the afternoon free, and I was up for trout fishing in a mountain stream. I stopped at a country store with a Merita Bread advertisement emblazoned on the screen door. I asked about an out-of-state fishing license.

The proprietor told me, “You don’t need no license. Follow that yonder dirt road ‘til it dead-ends at the creek. Take a path through the woods and fish all you want.”

I did as he said. That dirt road led me to a beautiful stream where I caught and released two nice trout.

On a cold, snowy morning just three days after Christmas in 1973, I followed a rutted dirt track outside of Waynesville, North Carolina, to visit a friend, Dr. Carlyle Marney, who made his home in a restored apple barn. I had to ford Wolf Pen Branch before arriving at my destination. My friend and I enjoyed pleasant conversation sitting before a warm fire in the fireplace and sipping steaming hot coffee.

Dirt roads meander across fields and over hills and through meadows.  It is impossible to be in a hurry traveling over unpaved terrain. The pace slows, and the air is refreshing. These rustic byways lead to adventure and to places where our souls can catch up with our bodies.

Several years ago, I asked James Cooley, who grows excellent peaches and strawberries, where I could find a good-looking mule. I needed a picture of a handsome mule for a book I was writing. James said, “Preacher, I got a mule but she ain’t nothing to brag about.”  James told me about some of his neighbors who owned the best-looking team of mules in the Upstate.

On a bright Saturday morning, master photographer Mark Olencki and I traveled to the farm above Highway 11 to visit these good folks. We needed photographs of mules for my book that was published in 2008 by the Hub City Writers Project entitled A Good Mule is Hard to Find and Other Tales from Red Clay Country.

Mark spotted a diamond-shaped Mule Crossing sign. I turned my pickup truck onto a dirt road. We stopped to open a heavy steel gate, carefully locking it behind us. The twin tracks of the lane cut through a cow pasture, followed the curve of a hill down to a soggy bottom, and climbed a slope beyond. Cresting the second rise, we saw the farmhouse in the distance. The dirt road curved to the right, then back to the left, past a stately barn.

As the truck neared the house, three dogs announced our arrival, a German shepherd, a Scottish collie, and an English bulldog. Guinea hens scurried across the yard. A handsome rooster of no distinguishable nationality strutted near an old well.

The mules were soon ready for pictures. Mark took a zillion shots, not just of the mules. Though I have a face for radio, he also made a few of me. Through the lens of his high-tech digital camera, Mark went back in time, taking pictures of the old buildings, of turkeys, of horses, and the charming house.

After the photoshoot, we were invited into the vintage farmhouse. The oldest part of the structure, a log cabin, was built in 1836. The home featured several additions, including a kitchen and a bathroom with indoor plumbing. We sat by a warm fire in the front room, swapping stories.

As we made our departure, the bulldog was on the porch chewing the leg bone of a deer. We said our goodbyes and made our way back up the dirt road. I commented to Mark, “Do you think these people are in danger from burglars?”

“Probably not,” Mark agreed. “Anybody with bad intentions would have to unlock the gate and make their way through the cow pasture with all of its hazards. When they finally got to the house, they would be greeted by an international assortment of barking dogs and probably a shotgun.”

I said, “We’d all be better off if there were more dirt roads.”

Too many dirt roads have been paved. Dirt roads slow us down to a more reasonable pace. Dirt roads teach us patience. Walking to the school bus, to the mailbox, or to the store takes more time, but it restores the soul.

Dirt roads bespeak a different set of values, a quality of character that’s worth preserving. Some of my happiest memories of dirt roads are of those that led to a fishing creek or a swimming hole.

Several months before his death, my dad and I were having breakfast together. Over scrambled eggs, bacon, and grits, he told me about the time when Highway 29, also known as the Greenville Highway and W.O. Ezell Boulevard, was a dirt road.

My grandparents had built a brick home where the pavement ended. Down the red-clay road toward Greenville, there was a spot known as the Sugar Bowl. It was a wide circular area on a hill above Fairforest Creek, where cars could turn around. Rumor has it that couples in love parked and sparked in the Sugar Bowl.

Dad remembered that dirt road fondly.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com