It’s a little before 6 AM in the morning.
The world is still a strange twilight gray as I pull up and park in front of 1st Infantry Division Headquarters. On the eastern horizon, there’s a pink hint of the hidden sun, but the sky still has bright stars in it. In just a few minutes, the sky will brighten, the stars will fade and then disappear into the blue Kansas sky.
Another MP vehicle and then another pull up and park next to me. Sitting beside me is a young Private, fresh to us from the Military Police School. He has a tight triangular package of blue with white stars in his lap.
“For God’s sake,” I tell him. “Whatever you do, don’t drop the flag.”
That’s what the package is. Folded just so the night before is the flag of our country. It’s kept at the MP station, and he and I had gone in a few minutes before and picked it up. We’d also picked up the shell for the cannon.
The term shell is a little bit misleading. What it is is the brass bottom half of an artillery round. It has a space to insert what is a blank shotgun shell. Think a blank inside a blank. One of my MPs will fire the round as flag call starts, and the flag is almost to the top of the pole.
We get out. There’s five of us for this morning’s detail.
My patrol corporal and I walk over to the flag pole. She and I’ll do an initial inspection of the pole to make sure the ropes aren’t tangled or broken, and then we’ll check the cannon.
There’s several things we check on the cannon, not the least is to make sure that the breach closes correctly and the firing rope and trigger function properly. A unit up on the hill that was responsible for flag call had recently really messed up. The firing pin had been damaged and for several months they’d been using a metal punch and hammer to fire off the shell.
Well, this one day, it blew back and took off a couple of fingers of the private who was using the hammer and punch. A whole lot of people had gotten in hot water over that one. It seems everyone knew the cannon was defective and rather than report it, they’d just kept using the hammer and punch. Officers lost their commands and NCOs had lost rank. It had been a mess and rightfully so.
But that wasn’t happening on our watch. If we even think something is wrong with the cannon, we won’t fire it.
But it passes the tests.
Now we have one more task to perform with the cannon. I put my hands together, and my corporal steps into them and then up to peer down the barrel of the cannon. She’s using her flashlight and what we’re looking for is anything that might be in the barrel.
One of the big embarrassments that had occurred years before was someone put toilet paper in the gun tube. When the salute was fired, this mass of confetti came shooting out of the barrel.
Another time, someone put a half dozen tennis balls down the barrel. When the salute was fired, the balls flew out and bounced out on the road.
The tube is clear.
Satisfied, we both march back over to join the waiting MPs.
We relax for a few minutes. I’d selected the MPs for Flag Call the evening before as part of our Guard Mount exercise. During Guard Mount, myself and the Corporal would inspect the troops to make sure their uniforms are just right and they look good. Those with the best, got the assignment.
With about ten minutes to go before Reveille, I fall in the soldiers, and march them quietly across the road, down the sidewalk, and to the flag pole. With a quiet, reverent command we begin the ceremony.
The private approaches the pole and the specialist who will run the colors up gently begins to unfold the flag. I can hear them talking a little, but it’s instructions from the Specialist on what to do, and most importantly, what not to do.
“Make sure you hook these correctly,” I hear him saying, and they hook the flag to the hooks on the rope. “We don’t want to raise the flag upside down.” They unfurl the flag enough so it will come out easily and go up cleanly.
While they’re doing that, my Corporal and a PFC (Private First Class) load the gun. The Private had carried the shell casing and round over, and I can see them as they load the cannon. She makes sure the breech is locked, and cocks the gun. The PFC holds the lanyard that when pulled, fires the gun.
With everything ready, and with just a minute or two to go, we all stand at parade rest. The young Private holds the flag, the Specialist stands ready to hoist the flag, and the PFC waits. The Corporal stands opposite me at parade rest.
The only sound is distant traffic and the light breeze rustling the trees.
We’ve done this so many times we’ve got the timing down almost perfectly. With five seconds to go I snap to attention, and then order, “Detail, attention.” The only one’s who really moves is the PFC, the Corporal and I. The three of us snap to attention.
Then the music booms out. Reveille echos across the the hills and buildings of Ft. Riley. And the Specialist starts pulling on the rope that takes the flag from the Privates arms. The Corporal and I, already at attention, salute, and watch as the flag goes smartly up the pole.
The morning breeze catches the flag, and the Stars and Stripes dance out against the brightening sky. I look at it and swallow. It’s a sight to stir the soul.
Every time it goes up, I think about the monologue Johnny Cash had done concerning the ragged old flag. Of how it crossed the Delaware with Washington, and got cut at New Orleans. How it was almost torn apart during the Civil War. and I think of the men who fought and died in the war to end all wars, and then the war after that. How it went to Korea, and Vietnam. And how Neil and Buzz unfurled it on the Moon.
It represents a nation that is far from perfect but at least has the courage to admit it. As it goes up the pole, it goes with the best we can be, and a prayer that we will live up to the ideas and sacrifices it represents.
When the flag is about two-thirds of the way up, the Corporal says quietly, “now.”
The PFC pulls the lanyard on the cannon and fires the “Salute.” The boom echoes across Main Post just as the flag reaches the top of the mast. The gunner drops the lanyard, turns and faces the flag pole and joins in the salute, and the young Private, his arms now empty, also comes to attention and salutes.
As the trumpet stops, the Specialist ties the rope off, steps back and salutes.
“Order, Arms,” I command, and we drop our salutes.
“Secure the cannon,” I order. Simply that means to retrieve the brass and retrieve the empty shot shell, and then close up the breach.
With the flag flying in the Kansas morning, I fall the troops back into formation and march them across the road to our patrol cars.
Another day has started for the Big Red One.