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Unraveling Old Glory's ongoing appeal

The American flag has always been a proud symbol of Yankee independence, whether waving in the dawn's early light or plastered across the ass of a draft-dodging hippie. Today's headlines suggest Old Glory is still roiling passions. The Pledge of Alle-giance --or at least a part of it --is being challenged in the courts; the latest versions of the Flag Protection Amendment are making their way through the two houses of Congress. And proponents and protesters of the war in Iraq are hoisting the Stars and Stripes to prove their patriotism.

But things are pretty calm at the Flag Shop at Maple Tree Place in Williston. That's because, after 15 years in the business, co-owner Nancy Boutin is familiar with the perils of banner waving. And the wisdom of maintaining a no-political-talk policy. The low-key ambience of her shop accords with this policy. No large Uncle Sam cut-outs looming over the door, no John Philip Sousa marches blaring on the sound system.

In fact, flags are not the first thing you see. A lot of floor space, including the front of the store, is devoted to the sorts of items you might find in any suburban gift shop: sleeves for mailboxes, colorful decorations for home and garden. You have to venture further back to find the displays of military bumper stickers, patches, medals, pins and service wings that usher you into more explicitly patriotic -- though still assiduously non-partisan -- territory. Flags of all sizes, types, materials and prices take up perhaps a third of the store. But make no mistake: They account for 75 percent of the business.

One thing Boutin is more than happy to chat about is her inventory, from the breadth of the selection --she has a very large collection of international flags -- to the craftsmanship that goes into it. "The mark of a well-made flag is the stars," she says, illustrating her point by opening a box marked "Commerical Grade, 8' x 12'." It contains a flag that is two feet wider and four feet longer than a California King mattress. Its big, five-pointed stars are embroidered with threads of white rayon on a field of hard-wearing, two-ply, blue polyester. No patched or stitched-on stars here. The red and white stripes, too, are sewn sturdily together.

Prolonged exposure to sun and wind is the great undoing of flags in general, and of cotton flags in particular, which wear and fade more quickly than polyester or nylon. Nevertheless, cotton flags have a strong aesthetic appeal for "gourmet flag flyers," as Boutin calls them. And they sell particularly well in June --often in "vintage" or "heritage" designs such as the 13-star "Betsy Ross" flag -- in anticipation of the 4th of July.

Hanging over the counter of the Flag Shop of Vermont are two striking cotton flags that have been chemically treated to appear stained with age. This same "antiqued" effect can be achieved by soaking a standard cotton flag in tea. This simulated aging ought to seem tacky -- the flags aren't actually steeped in history, after all, but in Earl Grey. But the illusion works, stirring the same emotion evoked by flags that really have witnessed struggle or sacrifice.

Francis Scott Key memorably celebrated such a flag's endurance in the face of adversity in "The Star Spangled Banner." His vision has woven itself into the national psyche. In military life -- and death -- the flag has from the beginning played a unique, honored and extensive role.

The first flag in the Western world, the vexillum, was created to be carried into battle by the standard bearers of the Roman army. From classical to modern times, flags provided an easy way to tell friends from enemies on the battlefield; they identified one's troop. As a group, soldiers and veterans still feel more connected to, more defined by and more protective of the flag.

Directly following the attacks of 9/11, Ameri-cans of all stripes embraced the flag with a fervor that hadn't been seen in generations. Threatened and unsure, they wanted solidarity. They sought reassurance from the symbol of their troops.

"Everyone was shell-shocked," Nancy Boutin remembers. "They bought and flew flags because they didn't know what else to do." If you owned a shop that specialized in flags, you were overwhelmed: by the crush of customers, the questions of the media, the raw trauma on everyone's faces. "We sold out to the walls," Nancy says, "but it was by far the worst time I've ever spent in the store."

And now? Well, the walls are covered again. America is no longer as infatuated with its flag as it was in the months after September 2001, but it hasn't exactly lost interest, either. Flag sales rise when troops are deployed, especially when they are in harm's way, as they are in Afghanistan and Iraq. Moreover, Vermont is a small state, and everyone knows someone who is overseas, Nancy notes. Families and friends of soldiers "buy flags to let the men and women who are going to serve know that those back home support their efforts," she says. For their part, military personnel about to be shipped overseas frequently buy American flags to take along. They fly them over foreign danger zones in hopes of bringing them back as mementos, at once exotic and patriotic, to family, friends or institutions when they return.

"We empower the flag to tell our tale," Boutin says, "to make us stand out, create dialogue, or just stir emotion, whether it be anger, happiness, pride, or patriotism." Americans seem to agree. Thirty years ago, the flag was a much more divisive icon, associated with a war and a set of policies that were driving a wedge through the nation. Today, in the midst of another war that is very unpopular in many quarters, Americans on the right and left are both waving it, though in support of different values. "Red" America and "Blue" America, we're told, have irreconcilable differences. But they are sharing custody of the flag.

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