When Scott woke up in his grandfather’s den, he recognized the creaking noise even before he opened his eyes: Grandpa Max was hoisting his flag up the wooden flagpole in the front yard.
Today was the Fourth of July, but that wasn’t the reason that Grandpa Max was putting up the flag. He had hoisted “the old Stars and Stripes,” as he called it, to the top of that pole 365 days a year for as long as Scott could remember.
Two minutes later Grandpa was standing at the bottom of the stairs, hollering the familiar words, “Hey, buddy boy, get yourself down here. You’re on spud-peeling detail in five minutes.”
Scott groaned and rolled over. In a few hours about thirty-five relatives would spill onto the front yard for the big picnic that Grandpa Max hosted every year. This was Scott’s year to be cohost. His older cousin Jeff, who had held that title the year before, had told Scott that “cohost” translated into “free help,” and Scott believed it. His body ached from hours of washing windows, mowing the lawn, and carrying tables yesterday. And Grandpa evidently had much more in store for this morning.
“Well, it’s about time!” Grandpa Max grinned at Scott while sliding three slices of golden french toast onto a plate and passing the maple syrup to his grandson.
“I heard you out there with the flag, Grandpa,” Scott said between bites. “I guess it’s just another day for you.”
“Ooooh no, no, buddy boy. I wouldn’t say that. I wouldn’t ever say that.”
“Well, you do put the flag up every day. Why is that, Grandpa?”
Grandpa Max didn’t answer immediately. Instead he stood up and grabbed a ten-pound bag of potatoes off the counter. “Tell you what, Scott. You peel these; I’ll quarter ’em. You listen; I’ll explain.”
Scott shoveled in the rest of his breakfast and silently picked up the vegetable peeler. He knew that tone of voice, and it meant “Listen up.”
“First,” Grandpa began, “you have to imagine the place that I call ‘the old country,’ the place where I was born. My village wasn’t a town as you know it, but a small cluster of cottages and shops built along seldom-traveled dirt roads. Everywhere there were poor, shabbily dressed people. Why, they would’ve thought that I was a king if they could have seen me dressed like this.” And he snapped the strap of his bib overalls for emphasis.
“And speaking of kings, the leader of the old country taxed and imprisoned the people unfairly, sometimes forcing them to join his private army. Because of this, many people began to talk against him. They gathered at secret meetings where they talked of ways to overthrow him. The ruler knew that they hated him, so periodically he sent his soldiers throughout the country to show his strength and to question the people, hoping to discover his enemies.
“In my village every family, no matter how poor, had a flag because a flag was considered protection against the soldiers. If a house had a flag hanging from it, it was not as likely to be searched.
“I have a picture in my mind,” Grandpa Max continued, “of my last day in the old country. I was only four years old, but it was a day that I will never forget. My parents had been packing all night, loading our wagon with all our possessions. We were going to make our escape early in the morning.
“The next morning, of all days, the king’s soldiers rode into town to make one of their searches. Our closest neighbor came to warn us.
“Mother had us take off our traveling clothes and put on our everyday work clothes so that we wouldn’t look suspicious. Father pulled the wagon around to the back of the house and hid it in the trees. “Suddenly Mother remembered the flag. Nearly everything inside our small home had been packed into the wagon, and though we searched frantically, we couldn’t find the flag.
“I remember that that’s when I began to cry. Far down the road I could see all our neighbors’ houses draped with the hated flags. Hurriedly my father dumped a bundle of linens on the ground. Rummaging through it, he found the flag. He raced around to the front of the house and hung it up. That picture of my father hanging the flag is my last memory of the old country.”
Grandpa Max smiled at Scott. “A few months later I was living a very different life. My family had come to America, to New York City. We lived in an apartment building with more apartment buildings on both sides of us. On the bottom floor of most of the buildings were shops of all kinds. The street outside was always a busy place, filled with peddlers selling their wares, children playing noisily, and people doing their marketing. Women leaned out their windows and carried on loud conversations with each other.
“One hot, sticky morning I woke up to an unusual quiet. I knew that it was not the weekend, but the street was nearly empty. I heard no peddlers’ cries, no shouting or bargaining as on every other morning. The only sounds were those of a few children playing.
“As usual, I hurried through breakfast, anxious to go downstairs and join my friends. But when I bolted out the front door of our apartment building, I immediately stiffened, and my heart started to pound violently. I wanted to scream, but I couldn’t open my mouth. I wanted to run back inside, but my feet wouldn’t move.
“Attached to every shop front, hanging from dozens of windows, stuck into window boxes, and tacked onto mailboxes were hundreds of flags. I stood trembling with fear, waiting for the soldiers to appear and search our homes.
“Laughing and chattering, several children asked me to join in a game, and I numbly followed along. Soon men and women joined the children outside. They sat on the steps of their apartment buildings, talking and joking. Aren’t any of the men going to work? I kept asking myself. Why is everyone so happy? I thought that perhaps they were all just pretending, trying to keep each other cheerful.
“All day long I felt as if I were in a nightmare. By afternoon I was too miserable to even join my friends in their games. I just sat on the curb and watched and waited. At suppertime the men set up long tables on the sidewalk, and the women covered them with tablecloths and began bringing platters and bowls of food to be shared by everyone. I couldn’t eat anything at all.
“Just before dark, Mother took me up to bed. While she was tucking me in, she told me that she was going back outside and that I could call her if I needed anything. I started to cry.
“‘No,’ I yelled, ‘you can’t leave me here alone!’ All day I had tried to be brave, but finally I just broke down and sobbed.
“My father raced up the stairs. ‘I heard you crying clear downstairs. Why are you sad after this wonderful day?’ he asked.
“‘How can you say it’s a wonderful day,’ I cried. ‘How can you pretend, when the soldiers will be here any minute?’
“‘Soldiers?’ he asked. ‘What soldiers?’
“‘The soldiers everybody put their flags up for,’ I sobbed. ‘They’ll be here soon, and we don’t even have a flag!’
“‘Oh, my poor frightened boy,’ my father said softly. He sat me on his lap. ‘First of all,’ he explained, ‘there are no soldiers coming to search our home today or any other day.’
“I stopped crying and looked up at him. Then he told me the story of America’s birthday and explained that all the flags were for the celebration.
“I went back outside with my parents and watched the fireworks to end the big birthday party and thought and thought about what my father had told me, trying to understand it all.
“I did understand one thing, though. My father said, ‘Someday we will be able to buy a flag, and I will be very proud to fly that flag. In fact, I will be so proud that when I am an American citizen, I will want to fly it every single day. And I hope you will, too, Max.’”
The potatoes were all peeled, quartered, and ready to boil, and Scott was still listening intently to his grandfather. “How come you never told me that story before, Grandpa?”
“Well, buddy boy, you never asked me before.”
“I think you should tell everyone today at the picnic, Grandpa,” I told him.
“Maybe I will, buddy boy. Maybe I will.”