A glory that never grows old

I don’t recall how I knew of the John Greenleaf Whittier poem “Barbara Frietchie” in June of 1967, after all there was no such thing as Google then. But I do recall using its two most memorable lines in my graduation speech:
“Shoot if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country’s flag,” she said.

My speech, titled “Let Freedom Ring,” was about Patriotism.
This was two years before Woodstock and three years before Kent State. Our parents, many of whom had stormed the beaches at Normandy, or, as did my dad, fought from island to island in the Pacific, had instilled in us a love of country. And that included a love and respect for the American flag.
I’m sure I found “Barbara Frietchie” back then during hours and hours of library research. I accessed the entire poem on the web in a matter of seconds last Monday, along with a good amount of interesting ancillary information, not the least of which was a revelation that the famous poem honored the wrong person.
Whittier’s words immortalize Barbara Frietchie for, at 95 years old, waving the Union flag in the face of Stonewall Jackson and his Confederate troops as they marched through Frederick, Maryland, in 1862 on their way to Antietam.
The story goes that the flag had been riddled with bullets and lay on the ground. The elderly Barbara Frietchie scooped it up, and, in Whittier’s words:
She leaned far out on the window-sill,
And shook it forth with a royal will.
“Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country’s flag,” she said.
A shade of sadness, a blush of shame,
Over the face of the leader came;
The nobler nature within him stirred
To life at that woman’s deed and word:
“Who touches a hair of yon gray head
Dies like a dog! March on!” he said.

I got chills reading that.
And when I learned that Winston Churchill, when traveling through Maryland in 1943 and seeing the signs for Frederick, recited the entire Whittier poem from memory, well, it was almost more than I could bear.
Then I found out researchers have proven it was not Barbara Frietchie at all, but a woman named Mary Quantrell who waved the flag at the Confederates that day. And, for the record, not Stonewall Jackson she waved it at either.
Oh, well.
But my search for background on Barbara Frietchie did lead me to a neat little tidbit that fanned my Patriotic embers. While Flag Day, which we will note Sunday, June 14, is not an official federal holiday, Pennsylvania was the first state to make it a state holiday. That was on June 14, 1937. I like that.
I also like this.
A few weeks ago I received a letter containing a poem from Ron Voveris. Ron frequently sent me his poems when I was editing the local newspaper and I always published them. I put this one aside to include in a Flag Day blog. He titled the poem just that, “Flag Day.”
Here it is:
It arrives on June 14th, only once per year
and the feelings that it represents may cause one to tear.
This flag’s original, humble beginning in those days
has been shown on a yearly basis, whether overcast or during a bright sun’s rays.
Many a serviceman paid the ultimate price,
which wasn’t so nice.
Members of the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard feel the need and want to admire America’s flag with all its glory,
and might even salute it to represent its marvelous story.
Each individual has their own feelings or thoughts,
and many a G.I. had no nice bed to sleep on and wound up on cots.
Some servicemen even slept in bunkers, or deep in the ground,
and worried about flying projectiles and their horrible sound.
Many didn’t make it, or were injured and came back,
and were happy to return with a family’s love, instead of an enemy’s attack.
Our flag will always have a deep meaning,
which includes everyone whether military or not, especially when it is waving, during a bright sun’s gleaming.

Maybe Ron Voveris does not have John Greenleaf Whittier’s immortal words. But the two of them share the same heart.

Ed Ackerman