• U.S.

Modern Living: Hooray for that Old RWB

5 minute read

On this feistiest of Fourths, it will not be Oh, Say Can You See? in New York harbor. There the longest, widest, heaviest, starriest national banner ever lofted will spread amaze amid the tops’ls of tall ships and raise the first gulp of the day. Hung athwart the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and visible far at sea, the superflag measures 193 ft. by 366 ½ ft., bigger by half than a football field, weighs 1 ½ tons and is constructed like a sail to weather all winds. It was Betsy Rossed in the loft of Marblehead, Mass., Yachtsman-Sailmaker Ted Hood. The grand notion, costing $45,000, was conceived by Len Silverfine, 39, a teacher in Vermont, whose father was a Russian immigrant, and Pierre Leduc, 34, a French-Canadian advertising man from Montreal. The Arm & Hammer baking soda people provided most of the financing; the flag’s acre and a half of bunting with 11-ft. stars was supplied by New Jersey’s Annin & Co., the nation’s biggest flagmaker, which has sold some 40,000 official Bicentennial flags.

Less noble in realization, but no less heartfelt in intent, is an eruption of red, white and blue that is spattering America like Bicentennial measles. It is spreading—literally—from top to bottom, from tricolored wigs to toilet seats, planes and trains to municipal fireplugs, Tiffany diadems to morticians’ coffins. An instant industry has sprung up manufacturing Bicentennial gewgaws such as plastic tricornes, birthday buttons, patriotic bikinis and tricolor towels. With pride, affection and occasional humor, from motives ranging from crass commercialism to plain and fancy patriotism, Americans are splashing the land with primary color that, for a change, has nothing to do with elections. Some RWB (red, white and blue) examples:

¶ The biggest birthday cake ever made—RWB icing and five stories high —will be open for gazing July 3 at Philadelphia’s Memorial Hall, and later for grazing (200,000 Sara Lee servings).

¶ Near the top of the world, at Alaska’s remote Campion Air Force Station, two three-story radar domes have been painted white, with blue and red stars and red ’76s.

¶ In Boston, after months of meditation and a week’s work, Vincent Dimarzo and Alton Wilkins signed their names to the Declaration of Independence. The document was inscribed by the freelance painters on a cement mixer that stops traffic with its revolutions.

¶ Hustlers in some cities are said to be offering Bicentennial Specials for $17.76.

¶ Waffle Houses is coloring its product RWB for the duration.

¶Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, the District of Columbia, South Carolina, Montana and Hawaii have issued RWB license plates. In Hawaii, what should have been patriotic red has come out parlor pink.

¶On Alcatraz, that erstwhile bastion of non-liberty, Independence Day will be celebrated with an RWB fireworks display.

¶At least 90% of the 2.8 million Americans graduating from high school this year wore on cap and gown some Bicentennial symbol, ranging from RWB cap tassel to round-the-shoulder Liberty Bell medallion.

¶ At the Indianapolis Speedway, wrecker trucks are RWB; so are many Illinois state police cars, garbage trucks in Boston, fire hydrants, buses and subway cars in Chicago, and Braniff s flagship airliner.

¶Off Manhattan on July 4, a 200-gun salute will initiate an explosion of 3,700 shells at six different locations in the harbor, while searchlights bathe the Statue of Liberty in RWB hues.

The colors were at least well chosen by the founding curators. (Who would rally around a flag of, say, beige, green and yellow?) From time immemorial and in almost every culture, red has stood for valor and sacrifice, white for virtue and unity, blue for truth and freedom. They are ambivalent, of course. Universally, red is the color both of cardinals and prostitutes, anarchists and patriots; white, of surrender, blue of melancholy. In the U.S. particularly, red can also connote financial trouble (as in ink), blue moody music (as in jazz) and white racism (as in honky). The U.S. was the first nation to put stars on its national flag, and some vexillologists (flag experts) agree with Political Scientist Whitney Smith that the flag should display the familiar circle of 13 stars, leaving out every parvenu state created or attached from 1776 on.

Our Choices. But the Spirit of ’76 is celebration, not cerebration. If to cynics the bombardment seems excessive —jingoistic and ingenuous at best, at worst grossly exploitative—Americans should nonetheless take heart from it. Only five years ago, in protest against the U.S. involvement in Indochina, the flag was being burned, burlesqued and spat upon. Today many of the selfsame Americans who chose then to disown their flag are hoisting it high. In a republic, the flag—not a royal family or the trophies of empire—represents in graphic form the experiences and beliefs of its people. As Woodrow Wilson said on America’s entry into World War I, “This flag, which we honor and under which we serve, is the emblem of our unity, our power, our thought and purpose as a nation. It has no other character than that which we give it from generation to generation. The choices are ours.” Color America RWB.

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