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Personal Histories

A Country’s Width

Years go by easier when there are 2,000 miles separating a father and son. Then an American flag turns up in your lap.

David Datuna, Due Date, 2013. Courtesy the artist and Birnam Wood Galleries.

A little more than a month ago, I came into my inheritance. It happened at my mother’s house in Laurel Springs, NJ, as I played on the rug with my two daughters on Easter Sunday. My sister walked in, her three teenage sons trailing behind her in a storm of hugs and fist bumps, and threw a cardboard box on my lap.

“What’s this?” I asked, giving it a shake.

“Open it,” she said, and squeezed her nieces’ cheeks.

Out popped a laminated nautical map of the San Diego coast. It looked like a diner placemat. A shotgun casing rattled inside a plastic box. Taking up the most room was an American flag, folded up into a thick triangle. Then it hit me: The package came from the Neptune Society, one of many companies that offer cremation services and burials at sea, mostly for veterans. Our father, who died last summer, had made arrangements to be buried at sea.

When he died, we hadn’t seen each other for 20 years. The sudden arrival of a material representation of him jarred me out of a chocolate-bunny-induced sugar fog and brought me back to our complicated relationship, if that term even applies.

Patriotism was how we bonded, even though I only half-understood what he was saying when he assigned me to read Ayn Rand and Voltaire and everyone in between.

My first reaction, however: What do I do with the flag? Flag-waving, depending on whom you talk to, is something one either overthinks or doesn’t think about at all. Put me in the former camp, on Team Overthink. Fairly regular reminders on display and etiquette for flags appear on local newscasts. There’s there sanitation worker who saved 700 flags from the trash heap and gave them to the Merchant Marines for a proper send-off ceremony. Barack Obama’s flag pin defined a news cycle in the 2008 election. There’s the federal court that upheld a school ban on T-shirts with flags, a congressional candidate who does flag magic tricks in ads, and Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who said he doesn’t recognize the US government, all the while waving old glory on horseback.

Growing up, I idolized Michael Nester, a Mensa card-carrying Teamster from Arizona, in every way exotic to a boy growing up in South Jersey. It was the beginning of the Reagan ’80s, and my dad was often hilarious expressing his patriotism. “Just give me three thousand G. Gordon Liddys,” he’d say, “and this country could take over the world.” We sneered at Dick Cavett when he interviewed Liddy on his PBS talk show and cheered on Ronald Reagan as he defeated Jimmy Carter. At school, I drew stars and stripes on book covers and notepads, and reenacted battles with army men and firecrackers. Patriotism was how we bonded, even though I only half-understood what he was saying when he assigned me to read Ayn Rand and Voltaire and everyone in between. I regarded Dad as a noble savage autodidact and aspired to be like him.

Then, as so often happens with fathers and sons, things went sour. He was laid off, his company a casualty of the great 1980s recession and truck deregulation. After years of money struggles, he got his job back and followed up quickly by pursuing an affair from which my mother could never recover. Then he up and left New Jersey for Tucson, Ariz. I was 17; my sister, 16. He never came back, not even to visit, never sent support checks or birthday cards. On the timeline of my life, this point was defined as before and after, enthralled and disenthralled, love and after-love.

In the intervening years, the flag morphed into a vessel for what I would call my father’s anti-social feelings. He turned more right-wing while I went moderate left. He bought guns and end-times supplies, and I moved to New York to be a poet and, eventually, an English professor. He ignored me, proud but keeping his distance, while I resented him. Years go by much easier when there’s a country’s width between father and son. Then an American flag turns up on your lap.

My sister kept in contact with him. Meri called him on Christmas, put grandsons he never met on the phone, forced him to be slightly less than estranged. (There’s a reason the word manchild exists but womanchild does not.) She flew out to Tucson to help empty his apartment. She thought I should get the flag, since I “was his first-born son.” Do rules of succession still apply? I’ve never owned any flag, unless Phillies pennants or gay pride rainbow banners count. I’m not what you would call a flag-waver. And, now that I had one, I felt more puzzled than partisan. What if I spilled something on it? Folded it the wrong way? Disrespected it, took it for granted? The debate became an allegory for my relationship not only with my father, but also with my country. Right-wingers like my father revere flags and distrust the government, while lefties like me find flag-waving an uncool, empty gesture and place more importance on public trusts. I was always of the same mind as the English essayist Samuel Johnson, who said, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

Sixteen boxes holding the ashes of US servicemembers and 16 flags lay on a table with a purple tablecloth. This marked the first time my father was ever out to sea.

Back home this month, I’d hardly touched the flag, beyond moving the cardboard box from pile to pile. Then, one morning, I took the flag out and discovered something else in the box: a DVD. I put it in my laptop, and was transported to the USS Comstock, behind a shaky camera.

Sixteen boxes holding the ashes of US servicemembers and 16 flags lay on a table with a purple tablecloth. This, it should be noted, marked the first time my father was ever out to sea. After he enlisted in 1965, he never served on a ship, didn’t go to Vietnam—a juvenile record, so the family story goes, kept him stateside. Instead, he worked at the Navy yards in Philadelphia, where he met my mother on Market Street, and in Norfolk, Va., where I was born.

Though wind gusts overtake the microphone, I could still make out the words of the officers at the lectern, reading a biographical sketch for each veteran whose ashes were being committed to the sea. “Two tours in Vietnam. “A chaplain for 26 years.” “Retired after 20 years. “Dedication to family and friends.” “Instilled his love of the military in his children.” “Operational specialist World War II, given the Victory Medal.” “A gracious, caring, and loving grandfather.”

My father’s turn came last. His dedication was the most brief, since we didn’t add any to what he wrote on the form: “Michael Nester, born June 11, 1947, in Maryville, Tennessee. He treasured his time in the United States Navy, where he was honorably discharged, and is proud and humbled to return to the sea.” Then, a couple sentences read very quickly, auctioneer-style, a mash-up of the traditional mariner’s farewell and the Order for the Burial of the Dead: “Farewell, fair winds and following seas. Unto almighty God we commit this soul in sure and certain hope of Jesus Christ and eternal life.” A whistle sounded, and down the chute went the box of my father’s ashes. The ceremony ended with a 21-gun salute.

It’s not often I feel the need to go to a hardware store, but off I went to purchase a flag pole and bracket, which I inexpertly bolted to the brick at the side of my house. The plan is to let my father’s flag flap in the wind until sundown this Memorial Day. I will then fold it back into a neat triangle. What will it all mean? I’ve no idea. I can’t decide if this is something I want to do or something I have to do. I talk to my students about symbols, about one thing standing in for something else. The flag, this flag, stood for whatever my father and I had between us, which was blood and genes, sure, but also love, even the frugal and distant kind. When a flag is all that’s left, you look for the country for which it stands. I’m still looking.