WAY OUT HERE - Learning the spirit behind 'allegiance'

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So as I was watching the U.S. women's soccer team play for the World Cup championship -- sitting here in the Rusty Nail Saloon at my Walkers Ranch home in western Walla Walla County -- I felt an overwhelming surge of pride.

The women were playing the Japanese team, known for its sportsmanship and fair, honest play.

The game was being played in Germany, a country that has been reunited since the Cold War and is now known for its peaceful, welcoming nature.

Chants of "U-S-A!, U-S-A!" roared from the crowd, with many Americans clothed and painted in red, white and blue and flying the Stars and Stripes.

My how the world has changed.

When I was growing up in the '70s, there was still an air of watchfulness and distrust associated with both Japan and Germany, even though World War II had ended three decades before.

Something else I remember about my childhood was a lack of American flags flying, almost as if there was a stigma attached to it. The only folks I knew who flew the flag where radicals, survivalists and old folks who had been through WWII - and I grew up in the suburbs of Seattle, which has always been very progressive. Some folks would display the flag on the Fourth of July or Memorial Day, but even they in a way were perceived as being a little extreme.

I remember watching the 1980 Olympic Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., where an outburst of patriotism exploded when the U.S hockey team beat the mighty Soviet Union juggernaut and then defeated Finland for the gold medal. But it didn't seem to translate into daily life. Folks were glad that we had won the gold, and beating the "Evil Empire" made it that much more memorable, but it didn't really change anything. There was still a predominance of patriotic complacency.

I've always been in awe of other countries during the Olympics and other international events; some citizens show such a fervor for their country that it amazes me.

Now, I'm not gonna lie. I was always a little uncomfortable in school each morning when we were asked to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The concept of requiring innocent and vulnerable children to stand up, put their hands over their hearts and pledge their allegiance, seemed very scary and even communistic to me. I simply stood and respectfully remained quit, not willing to pledge to anything that I did not fully understand.

Time marched on and not a lot changed as far as the big picture goes, until one random day in September - Sept. 11, 2001.

America had endured previous attacks on its capitalism and everything we are, but that vicious surprise ten years ago changed us forever.

The Al Qaida attacks in New York and on the Pentagon compromised our way of life, killing innocent citizens who were just going about their workday and police and firefighters trying to rescue those they could.

It generated a perfect, scary storm of anger, fear and uncertainty -- followed by a mass nationwide renewal of patriotism. Even in small towns like Walla Walla, people gathered to hold ceremonies to honor those who died on the other side of the continent and to renew community bonds created by a common enemy.

It burst open a dam that unleashed pride of country. Suddenly it was cool again, even en vogue, to fly the flag and represent the red, white and blue.

Some folks were even inspired to interrupt college and careers to serve their country in the military.

The sense of "country" was palpable - we'd gotten our mojo back.

Not too long afterward my late uncle, Ray Winship Jr., was lying on his death bed in the living room of the old farm house my grandfather built, when he suddenly pointed to a spot between two trees and said to my grandmother: "We need a flag out back. Right there."

The next day my grandmother went into town and bought a 30-foot flagpole and a 3-by-5 American flag. She had my other uncle, Allen Winship, set it up right away.

Uncle Ray could then watch the flag fly in the breeze. Confined to his bed, he still found it in himself to be proud of his country, his family and his life -- and the smile on his face was unmistakable.

After he died, my grandmother decided to replace the flag - new beginnings and all. The original flag was still in good condition, and when she asked me if I wanted to fly that flag here at Walkers Ranch, I gladly accepted.

Due to the constant wind way out here on Walkers Ranch, flags are constantly flapping and don't last very long.

So I decided to attach that flag right to the side of our house to prolong its life -- straight up survivalist style.

I love that flag and I'm proud of it. Just like my grandparents, great-grandparents, parents, wife, brother, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends.

Yep. You're damn right I pledge my allegiance.

GO U.S.A!

Burbank-area writer Erik D. Walker, author of "In Pursuit of the Perfect Burger" can be reached at erikandtina@walkersranch.com.

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