The Man in the Flag Tie

 

Two things always bring a tear to my eye. One is witnessing the birth of a new baby, and the other is voting. From my earliest childhood, I remember my Dad taking me to vote, explaining everything, then asking me to step outside.

“Voting is private, Dixie. It’s no one’s business who you vote for,” he’d say, and I’d stand aside while the large gray curtains closed around him. One day, I’d be old enough to vote. I’d get to stand inside the curtain.

The other day, I went to vote early.  The line was short, and I had just enough time to pass the time of day with a trim, older gentleman there to help befuddled voters.

I wore my blue chambray shirt festooned with American flags and fireworks. He had on a red, white, and blue flag tie that echoed the snowy white of his hair.

“I like your shirt,” he said with a slight, shy smile.

“I like your tie, ” I replied. “Where did you get it?”

“Thanks, he said, Ronald Reagan gave it to me.”

The conversation was on. I’m nosy, though I prefer to call myself curious. He said President Reagan had given him the tie in the 1980’s as a reward for political service. He allowed that he wore the tie when he worked the polls, though sometimes he wore his own flag shirt. His wife had embroidered the flag on the back.

“She’s English. They like needlework,” he said.

It was as I suspected. He’d found her in England during World War II. They’ve been together a lifetime now. He volunteered nothing about his war service. His generation doesn’t. But I knew there was a story there. So I kept asking questions.

Long story short, he was on the crew of a B-24. His was a long-range strategic bomber that flew as high as 45,000 feet. Of course, they had oxygen masks, but no heat. Imagine enduring sixty degrees below zero for hours at a time. He flew 49 missions over Europe.

“Ever get shot at?’ I asked.

“Oh, every time. We always came back with at least a few holes, he said.

I winced. I get nervous when a 777 hits a little turbulence.

“How did you stand it?”

“The airplane was just so great. Very airworthy. It just kept flying, no matter what. The wings were so long, you see, that even with our huge loads, we were going to stay aloft.”

“But you flew 49 missions, not 50.” I said.

“Yep. The last mission they blew off part of a wing. We made it home though. Great pilot.” He smiled and gave a nod toward the voting area.

It was my turn to vote.

I looked at the woman sitting at the Dell computer. I was back in today’s world. I offered her my photo ID. Normally, I’d have said, “I like to vote, please.”After what I’d just heard something else came out of my mouth.

“I’m here to claim my right to vote.”

There were no gray curtains, just little computers with dials and buttons. I realized I would not vote for candidates, but for principles. I vote because I can. I vote on behalf of all the people who don’t get to. I vote for my great-grandmothers who couldn’t vote. I vote for women around the world whose lives are not their own, whose voices are silenced. I vote on behalf of all the souls who’ve perished under political despots.

Most of all, though, I vote for the man in the flag tie. If he could risk his life to secure my right to vote, the least I can do is show up and do it.

On the way out, I stopped to speak to my old soldier.

“Thank you,” I said, tears welling in my eyes. “You literally made it possible for me to vote today.”

“Thanks for coming out to vote,” he said. And then my hero shook my hand.

This was first published by the Houston Chronicle on October 31, 2004.