We were thrilled, the whole crowd, as we giggled and whispered and whistled outside the school that day. It was quarter to noon on Memorial Day, one of the most exciting days of the year. The American flag, with its crowded square of 64 stars, looked as if it housed a universe on that patch of blue. It flew at half-staff, as usual, though there was not a breath of wind to spread the banner.
Betty was the littlest of our crew. At only five years old, she couldn’t remember why we celebrated this day—the morning or the afternoon, my favorite part. She kept taking Mom’s face into her hands and staring into Mom’s eyes, asking wordless questions.
“C’mon, Bets,” Jakey said. “I’m only nine, and I know why we’re here today.”
“The flag?” she asked, showing she knew more than she was saying.
“Mmm hmmm,” I said, prompting her to go on. “What do you usually see when you look at the flag?”
“Yes, and where does it sit on the pole?”
“Half,” she said.
“Do you know why?” I asked.
“Oh hush,” said Mom. “We don’t need to think about that now—not now. Not so close to noon.”
“Jakey?” I asked, ignoring her. She was wrong—as a history buff, I knew this was the most important and best time to discuss it all. “How well do you know your history, Jakester? What happened on Christmas Day last year?”
He shuddered. “That was when that man blew up the children’s hospital, right?”
“Uh huh. And what had happened the summer before?”
Jake appeared to think for a moment. “Was that when Los Angeles was burned to the ground by the terrorists?”
I nodded, pleased he was going to be a history guy just like his big sister.
“And what about the start of World War III?” he asked me.
“Well, that was a long time before that,” I said. “That was way back in April of 3264. Some of the reasons the flag flies at half-staff we can barely remember. Supposedly, back in 2001, some terrorists attacked New York City.”
“What’s New York City again?” he asked.
Now even Mom joined in. “Well, we’re not totally sure, but historians believe it was a large city on the east coast. The rumor is that some planes flew into a couple towers there. But things that far back are a little sketchy. It’s mostly folklore by now.”
“Same with December 7th,” I admitted. I believed the old stories about Pearl Harbor, even though most people thought it was an urban myth.
“What makes today so special?” I asked Betty. “C’mon, you know this,” I said to her.
But then the trumpets sounded, and everyone in the crowd stood to his or her feet to watch the flag rise all the way to the top of the mast, where it would remain until midnight. The only twelve hours of the year it stood at salute was always a fascinating event. As it rose to the top, a wind appeared out of nowhere, unfurling the flag, and I watched it flare across the afternoon sky, feeling extremely patriotic and proud to be an American.