Letter from Birdland: Battlefields trip stirs thoughts of flags, wars

Letter from Birdland: Battlefields trip stirs thoughts of flags, wars

It's sunny and humid as I head south after my residency in Kentucky. I am on my way to visit my dear friend, Emily, who moved to Georgia nine years ago, but I have a wistful feeling that I'm driving the wrong way.

I wonder what's going on in Birdland. Are the dogs OK? Is it still cool and mild there? Do they miss me back home? It's hard for me to imagine anything but heat after the high 90s we had in Murray, Ky.

My journey will have two legs and now I'm at the top of Georgia, in LaFayette. I came off of a winding mountain road that I think crossed over the border from Tennessee and back a few times before I got to my destination, Emily's brother David's house. I was happy to be driving this road in daylight and in good weather, happy for the braking gear on my car.

David very kindly greeted me and treated me to dinner at a very nice restaurant in Fort Oglethorpe. It was a lovely drive through a historic battlefield, Chickamauga.

It was interesting to imagine the history, open fields, often filled with monuments that were really like big gravestones, and I guess that's what they are. We saw a few split-rail fences and some cannons, and pyramids of cannonballs, and an occasional reconstructed cabin.

David is a retired high school history teacher.

As we continued our drive into Fort Oglethorpe, David said, "I just want to warn you. You might see some Confederate flags, something I find distasteful." I thanked him for the warning, and assured him that we sometimes see them up north, too. I hadn't seen any yet, however, even at the battlefield, and we drove on.

The fields were punctuated by thick forests, with lots of tall pines. I imagined battalions and regiments marching through these woods, thinking how many of these young men on both sides met with tragedy.

When we got to town, we did indeed see a parade of sorts, a line of big, honking pickup trucks driving past us, each with two flags affixed to each side of the tailgates. But these flags streaming out in the wind behind the trucks were American flags.

"Do you think that's a protest in response to the Confederate flag parades?"

"Oh, absolutely," he said.

A few minutes later, we did see a truck with two Confederate flags flying, and then a truck with one of each, something I would see occasionally on the rest of my trip all the way down to the southern edge of Georgia.

But seeing all these political expressions was interesting to me, and I discovered how important context is in my feelings about flags in general.

I don't think I've ever said in these letters that I feel about patriotism about how I feel about religion — that for me it's kind of a private matter, and I don't think I should have to prove my patriotism by waving a flag.

Even after 9/11, I did not buy a flag, choosing instead to express my patriotism in quieter ways. But now, in this context, when I occasionally encountered Confederate flags streaming behind pickups, ones pasted on gas station doors and once, deep in south Georgia, a gigantic Confederate flag flying on a pole that must have been 100 feet tall right on the edge of the highway (something that felt ominous to me, a Yankee woman traveling alone, if not mildly threatening), I found the sight of the American flags fluttering in a parade on a sunny day comforting, and that surprised me.

As we drove past the historic battlefields (and these went on and on for miles), David and I talked about war. He told me some of the history, and I thought about symbols. I'm still thinking about them.

The stone memorials scattered randomly around the fields where a deadly battle took place seem to me both historic and personal. There are stones for both sides. The largest one I saw said, "Illinois." It struck me that everyone who fell there was caught up in something too big, too ugly. If these stone monuments can help us all see the senselessness of war and violence, then they are doing their job.

Flutter in beauty; stand in peace; blessed be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Hartland near White Heath. She loves to travel and she loves to come home again. You can read more of her writings at http://www.letterfrombirdland.blogspot.com. She can be reached at letterfrombirdland@gmail or via snail mail care of this newspaper.

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