Thursday, June 14, 2012

Flag Day and the Elks

from 2003
 Saturday, June 14, it will be time to celebrate one of the great overlooked patriotic holidays. I speak, of course, of Flag Day.
 According to my research, Flag Day goes back to 1885, when Wisconsin school teacher B. J. Cigrand organized a student celebration of the anniversary of the Flag Resolution of 1777 on June 14. He called it Flag Birthday, and within a few years it had spread to New York City and the New York State Board of Education. In 1893 the Pennsylvania Society of Colonial Dames of America resolved to get behind the Flag Day movement (and when the Pennsylvania Society of Colonial Dames gets behind a cause, you know things are going to happen). Philadelphia City Schools, the governor of New York, and the PA and NY Sons of the Revolution also climbed on the bandwagon.
 But Flag Day got its major boost in 1907 when the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks Grand Lodge adopted a resolution to honor Flag Day, making that honoring mandatory for all Elk lodges in 1911. You have to love the BPOE. First of all, how can you not love an organization that was originally called the “Jolly Corks.” Really. Englishman Charles Algernon Sidney Vivian and some buddies in 1867 New York City took their name from a drinking gag of the time. Digression alert: I will now explain the old drinking gag. Each member would ante up fifty cents and place his cork in front of him on the table. The Imperial Cork would announce that the last man to raise his cork would buy the next round of drinks, then count to three. The new guys would quickly raise their corks, but the regulars would not raise their corks at all, ever, so the new guys were always the last ones to actually raise their corks. Get it? And this gag is at the root of the entire national Elk organization. Is this a great country or what?
 But late in 1867, one member died, leaving his wife penniless. The Corks stepped in to help and decided that maybe it was time to expand their horizons beyond playing drinking games. They didn’t wring their hands and say, “someone ought to do something about this.” They regrouped as the Benevolent and Protective Order (words not chosen idly or simply for effect) and chose the Elk as their symbol because it is “distinguished by its fleetness of foot and timorous of wrongdoing.”
 The Elks really are a true American story—folks who get together to enjoy themselves and end up standing up to be counted about things that matter. The Elks give out millions of dollars in scholarship money and maintain medical funding for a variety of institutions.
Locally, our Elks give support to a wide and varied group of causes. I don’t think there’s a civic group that gives any more real help to the area than the Elks.
And they keep Flag Day alive. The BPOE helped convince Woodrow Wilson to proclaim it a real anniversary in 1916, and it was BPOE member Harry Truman who signed an act of Congress designating June 14 as National Flag Day in 1949.
 The Elks have custody of Flag Day, and a whole written procedure to follow when the holiday runs around. It’s a good thing, too, because if the holiday were going to depend on the average everyday civilians who showed up to celebrate it, it would carry about as much clout as National Pickle Day or International Toaster Day.
 Sometimes patriotic holidays can be a bit depressing because they can underline the degree to which so many people have become armchair citizens. We’ve heard a lot of patriotic noise in the past couple of years. The flag has become a popular merchandising item, but people seem to prefer it in forms that allow them to just tack it up somewhere and forget about it.
 But a flag is a symbol, a way to say “If the idea of this country were a thing, I would respect it and take care of it this much.” There’s not much patriotism in the notion of, “I’m happy to honor this symbol as long as it doesn’t cut into any of my spare time.”
 The parade Saturday won’t be all that long, and the service is pretty simple. If you feel that patriotism matters enough to stand up and be counted, then by all means, take some time Saturday to join in. The Elks will be there to show how it’s done.

From my Flickr