Why I'll Always Wave The Flag of My Father

Waving solemnly to passersby as it rustles in the breeze, an American flag hangs prominently on a beam outside my front door. To some, a flag appears as an ordinary decoration, dotting the fronts of schools, post offices, restaurants and gas stations. But to me it means much more.

The son of a sugar-factory worker in a small Nebraska town, my father, Harold Herdt, enlisted in the United States armed forces. During his 24 years of duty, he willingly obeyed every call to serve our nation. When Uncle Sam summoned him during the Korean War, he went without hesitation. When he got his orders to go to Vietnam, he did, leaving my mother and us five children behind.

The Vietnam War was the first to be televised, and the flickering scenes on the living-room console were simply surreal. Curiously and then fearfully, I would stare at the screen, attempting to fathom how what was happening to my family was somehow associated with those awful images. I saw young, wounded soldiers being swiftly shuffled onto anxiously waiting helicopters. Solemn soldiers in their fancy military garb would stand at attention, while flag-draped coffins paraded in front of them onto military planes. My childlike mind dared to wonder if my father would share a similar fate.

I longed to see my smiling father again. I found that simply by using my imagination, I could make him magically appear before me. He would be wearing those meticulously shiny black shoes with the perfectly tied, thin laces. He would look so handsome, decked out in his carefully pressed, navy blue dress uniform with the white-striped patches sewn on the sleeves. I especially liked the rows of multicolored ribbons pinned evenly on his upper-left breast pocket.

Months went by and, thankfully, he returned from war unharmed and life went on. I grew up, went to college, got married and my husband I purchased our first home. To commemorate the occasion, my thoughtful father gave us an American flag. To him, it was only proper that we had one of our own.

When Memorial Day rolled around, the phone would ring and I would hear Dad's voice on the other end of the line: "You got your flag out today?" I would get similar calls on Veterans Day, Presidents' Day, the Fourth of July, Pearl Harbor day and other significant dates. Dutifully, I'd go fetch the flag out of its worn cardboard box and stick it in its holder, giving the ritual little thought.

As the years went on, my father continued to demonstrate how proud he was to be a veteran. His dusty desk was cluttered with his many eagle statues. We would marvel at his growing, prized model-airplane collection. Planes of numerous colors, shapes and sizes were suspended in the air, as if in flight, from wires in his den. He could name them all, from B-52s to F-14s. "I flew on a DC-10 like that one when I was stationed in Okinawa," he said, his brown eyes gleaming.

By then, my father had long since moved away from us in California and retired in Washington state. During one of my visits to see him, he insisted we tour the Boeing Museum of Flight. Dad was as giddy as a schoolboy that day, showing off the various exhibits. His enthusiasm was contagious. I felt a renewed interest in history, and I felt closer to my father.

That was one of the last times I saw my father active and healthy. Lung cancer took his life in June 2001, just seven months after the diagnosis. A flag draped his coffin.

On September 11 of that year I awoke early, with thoughts turning to my dad. On that day he would have celebrated his 69th birthday. I pondered some way to honor him, and I realized that I could hang out the flag he'd given me. I went outside to place my flag in its holder, and under the canopy of stripes and shimmering stars, I smiled to myself. Dad would have liked this simple tribute.

The remembrance was brief, as I soon learned of the horror that had visited us during the terrorist attacks of that infamous day. Our world has changed significantly since then, but what hasn't changed is my adoration of my proud veteran dad, and the ritual I use to honor him. Every morning, when I see the flag that I've kept on display, I take a moment to reflect. I pray for the day when all our brave soldiers can return safely. I become a child again, waiting for my daddy, my hero, to come back to me.