“I was born on the Fourth of July,” he says. “I fought in the same war, too. They didn’t make a movie about me, though. I guess it’s not the same if you come home safe and sound.”
It’s a blistering July day before the holiday weekend, and Rayfel was just finishing folding the flag when I walked in. I was the last customer and I stood in line and watched as he transformed the flag into a perfect, crisp triangle.
I told him that I’m pleased by his respect for the flag. I told him that a week earlier, I’d seen someone lower the flag until it touched the ground then gather it up and throw it in a shopping bag.
He chuckled. “It’s not easy doing it by yourself,” he said simply.
“The war made me understand what it means to be a patriot,” he tells me. “Not necessarily from our side, though. It was a civil war. Both sides were fighting for what they thought was the good of the people. For us, though, it was just the ideology. I still think that’s why we lost.”
He puts the flag in a satin-lined, olive-drab metal box. It fits perfectly. I ask him if the box was from the army. “Army surplus,” he says, smiling. “The best place to get them.”
After picking up my mail, I walk out to see Rayfel still outside smoking a cigarette.
“I know there’s some cats come back and say they saw us killing babies,” he offers. “I never saw anything like that. It was mostly just us getting shelled. On patrol, sometimes we’d find bodies or fresh graves out there. I shot at people, but I never actually saw anybody get killed,” he takes a long drag of his cigarette, “up close. It was mostly filling sandbags and getting shelled.”
He takes another drag, drops the spent cigarette, and we start walking to the Metro.
“I think the further from home you take a flag, the less power it has.” Rayfel speaks slowly, using measured words. “We brought our flag over there and expected it to have the same power to move a different bunch of folks with a different set of priorities. A different history and philosophy. That’s the definition of hubris.”
Smiling, he looks over at me. “How do you know so much about flags,” he asks.
The Dade County Youth Fair was part county fair and part amusement park. In the fifth grade, our school visited. I found a vendor selling flags. I’d always loved flags, since my uncle gave me a book of world flags when I was four. My attempts to copy them in crayon had led to my first taste of art and infamy. I was sent to the principal’s office for trading my flags to the girls for kisses.
At the vendor’s stand, I rummaged through the stacks of folded flags and found something I’d never seen before. The vendor offered it to me with a wide smile and a small discount. It must have made him perversely happy to sell a confederate flag to an unwitting seven-year-old black kid.
Mrs Gilroy, our teacher, was aghast. At first, she refused to let me carry it on the bus. She’d insisted I throw it away, but then changed her mind and confiscated it. When we returned to class, she postponed the day’s lesson and gave us a lecture about flags.
I learned that flags are more than just the symbol of a country and its ideology. It was the embodiment of all that is good and bad in the hearts and minds of its people.
“And that’s why we protect them,” Rayfel adds. “They’re made strong or weak by the changes in the nature of their people. This is another reason you win or lose a war.”
“So what happened when you came back,” I ask.
“I heard stories of cats coming back and having folks spit on them, cuss them out. Never happened to me. I come back and it’s like I’d never left. Everybody’s just happy I wasn’t in a box. Found a job at the Post Office. I’ve only ever been two places besides home,” he smiles. “Atlanta and Vietnam.”
“Do you ever want to travel more,” I ask him. “There’s a lot of places out there where you can see a friendly flag.”
“No, thanks,” he says flatly. “I don’t think I care for the way we show folks Democracy. We still haven’t gotten over our own problems, and we want to help folks with theirs?”
Across the street, a bus pulls up. Rayfel steps off the sidewalk and starts to cross. “This is me,” he says. “Happy Fourth.”
“Happy Birthday,” I say.