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The Nation

'Flag Ladies': A Continuing Wave of Patriotism

May 19, 2003|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

FREEPORT, Maine — Just after 8 a.m. one recent Tuesday, a garbage truck slowed down at the corner of Main and School streets to send a thunderous horn blast in the direction of two silver-haired women waving large American flags.

Then a Chrysler stuffed with children passed by, offering a friendly beep to the women wearing blue jeans and red, white and blue sweaters. A Volvo gave a jaunty toot, and the driver of a Chevy Blazer laden with construction equipment rolled down his window to shout hello to JoAnn Miller and Elaine Greene, the Flag Ladies of Freeport.

"Couple of weeks ago," Miller said, "a fellow pulled over in front of the post office, walked over to our corner and said, 'Can I give you a hug?' "

Another man, Greene said, "shyly took off his shirt to display an eagle tattoo covering his entire back. It said, 'Long May She Wave.' I don't do tattoos, but it was a beautiful tattoo."

Rain or shine, sleet or snow, Greene, Miller and their flags occupy the busy intersection a block from L.L. Bean's flagship store every Tuesday from 8 to 9 a.m. They chose the day and time because that's when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks took place.

The idea of waving Old Glory dawned on them within days of the disaster when, Greene said, "we realized that we all need to be more grateful that we are Americans, and we realized that we needed to do something to show that."

Their self-appointed mission in this seacoast town north of Portland comes as Americans in the aftermath of the terror attacks and the Iraq war seek new outlets for proud feelings about their country. Experts say that for many Americans -- including Greene and Miller -- patriotism has become a conduit for connectedness, a vehicle for individual citizens to feel part of the larger experience of nationhood.

As individuals continue to fly flags from their car radio antennas or pinstripe their pickups in red, white and blue, patriotism has emerged as a cultural theme.

Caroline Kennedy, daughter of the late president, has just published a book called "A Patriot's Handbook." In Atlanta, the National Museum of Patriotism is set to open soon. On a Web site called patriotdrive.org, more than 400,000 people have joined a movement to sign a commitment to the Pledge of Allegiance. Onetime major league baseball player Mike Radford was officially named ambassador of patriotism by the Missouri House of Representatives, and unofficially by U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft.

The weekly appearance by Greene, 58, and Miller, 66, appeals to a lost sense of collective -- or shared -- citizenship, said Charles Moskos, a professor of sociology at Northwestern University. "That's what they're trying to get across, and it's very noble of them," he said.

But Moskos characterized many expressions of new nationalism as "self-delusion," or what he calls "patriotism lite."

Moskos, a Korean War-era veteran and former military advisor to President Clinton, noted that in the recent wars in the Persian Gulf region and Afghanistan, "nothing was asked of the citizenry except to spend more money." With no major sense of sacrifice -- no food rationing, no draft, no full mobilization -- patriotism for many has become a "feel-good" phenomenon, he said.

Before the Sept. 11 attacks, "what it really meant to be an American was what you could buy," said Cecilia Elizabeth O'Leary, a history professor at Cal State Monterey Bay in Seaside and the author of "To Die For," a book about patriotism in America.

After the disaster, she said, "there was this incredible desire for individuals to feel connected."

"People were looking for some kind of meaning that went beyond the T-shirt you could buy or the designer logo or the kind of car they were driving," she said.

The two women on Main Street are part of a "homegrown" response to tragedy and war, O'Leary said, "where people turned to flags out of a sense of wanting to define America as a community, but not taking it any further in terms of a political agenda."

Miller and Greene say their tiny tableau of patriotism lifts people's spirits. School buses have changed their routes so students can watch them wave the 3-by-5-foot flags. Once, on a particularly frigid winter day, a driver handed them steaming cups of coffee. The proprietor of a nearby cafe has brought them muffins.

"They're really bringing this community together," said Karen Bartlett, manager of a credit union here. "After 9/11, everybody pulled together. But truthfully, it didn't last very long. So this is really important."

Miller and Greene "have become a symbol in town, certainly," said Dale Olmstead, town manager of Freeport -- whose outlet stores annually attract 4 million visitors, making the small community leading tourist destination in Maine.

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