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As flags wave, emotions waver

Not all Americans display Old Glory for same reason

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Not once in his 38 years, Alvin Ray says, did it occur to him to wear the red, white and blue of his country — much less raise Old Glory at his home in Petworth, a black neighborhood in Washington, D.C.

But there it is — a perfectly uncreased 8-foot-high, 4-foot-wide beauty that seems big enough to wrap his small gray home like a Christmas present.

No doubt about Ray's sense of citizenship and duty — he's a Washington police officer, after all. But putting out a flag? As a black person seeing the flag through the lens of slavery and discrimination, he had to think. Still, up it went.

"I'm not a 'rah-rah USA USA' kind of guy," said Ray. "But since Tuesday, I've felt violated. They attacked us here at home."

Gripping the fabric, Ray nodded.

"It looks nice here," he said, "and it makes a statement."

Americans everywhere are raising Old Glory, but they don't all mean the same thing when they do.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks brought people together in grief, fear and anger — and honoring those who died is the basic message of those hoisting the flag.

"Every time I do it, I consider what it represents," says Mario Vega, who cried when he lowered the flag to half-staff in front of the Harvest Time Church in north Houston shortly after the attacks.

But there are other thoughts, too. Baby boomers recall protests during the Vietnam era when flags, along with draft cards, burned. Some raise the flag to say thanks to a loved one. Some are commemorating a personal loss.

The flag's meaning is in the eye of the beholder, said John Bodnar, chairman of the Indiana University history department and expert on patriotism and its symbols. The peacenik and the warmonger,

standing side by side, can wave the same flag and hold diametrically opposed views of the world, Bodnar said.

"For some people, the flag expresses a desire for a safe and secure home," he said. "For others, it's a plea for peace, and still others can view a flag display as a command to go out and destroy evil in the world."

Just as the commemorative music in the past week differs — "God Bless America" for listeners to pop music stations, James Brown's "The Big Payback" for urban contemporary listeners — so does the flag raising.

The simple act, performed millions of times across the country in the wake of the attacks, has put the Stars and Stripes up on front porches, in apartment windows, atop car antennas, on jacket lapels.

But it's not such a simple act, after all, the flag-raisers will tell you.

Putting out a tattered flag from her third-story San Francisco apartment window clashed, in Margaret Schultz's mind, with the pacifist, left-leaning political fires that she said burn deep within her.

"I would see myself lighting candles and going to a march or a gathering, or giving money, but not a flag," said Schultz, a 37-year-old management consultant. "Because again, I equate usually the flag as being blindly supporting the president or military."

But Schultz decided with her roommate and boyfriend to hang Old Glory just the same.

Mary Jane Ellis, 71, of Mullens, W.Va., lost her home when 10 inches of rain fell on July 8, causing record floods that killed two, destroyed 1,500 homes and damaged 3,500 others in southern West Virginia.

Among possessions she lost was the big, beautiful cloth flag that graced her home for years on holidays.

So now, a flag printed in her local newspaper will have to do.

Taped to the window of the mobile home she moved into last week, the flag now serves notice that Ellis was dealt one of life's cruelest blows — and survived it.

A small fabric flag affixed with surgical tape to the bumper of Ladder Truck No. 1 of the Barre City Fire Department in Vermont is a remembrance for fallen comrades and the sad possibilities of the job.