When I was young, my dad would roust my brothers and I from the breakfast table, pile us into the family station wagon and, by mid-morning, we’d be driving all over town counting American flags. Each of us had our own motivation: Matt liked to beat last year’s tally while youngest Dan tried to find the biggest, brightest flag. Me, I liked it when my dad pretended to get us lost – when we ended up somewhere I’d never been and learned something I might otherwise not have known.
The truth is, I felt lost. I was in between homes, at the doorstep of adulthood. I wanted to spend the 4th of July with someone who always seemed to know the way back home.
My dad took a lazy road out of town while I counted flags hanging from awnings and jutting off car antennae. After about an hour, the car came to a crawl on a quiet, sun-baked street in one of the nondescript northern suburbs of Detroit. The street was like hundreds of others my father and I had crept down in the heyday of flag counting: post-war bungalows and colonials, New Englandy names. Arlington Way. Devonshire Rd.
Normally the smaller of these streets were canopied by tall maples and pines, planted to keep front yards cool during the oppressive Michigan summers. But this one was mostly bare, save one enormous pine at the end of the block whose branches hung over the sidewalk like the wings of a giant bird. My father parked the car under the tree, got out and pointed triumphantly to a low branch. Hanging off it was a large American flag, hanging limply in the windless afternoon.
“Did you count this one?” he asked.
I said sure and asked what was so special about it.
“Let me tell you a story,” he said.
When my father was 16, he worked for his father, a house-builder, supplying homes for the rapid suburbanization of Detroit. One summer day, my father showed up for work at the street where we now stood. Otto, my grandfather’s foreman, had already arrived and was scoping out the site for the final phase of construction: hedges to trim, driveways to smooth down. No sooner had my father parked his car when Otto, a grizzly bear of a man who didn’t run for anyone, raced up to him.
“Your father just called. The building inspector is paying us a visit this morning. Unscheduled. I need you to find me a tree.”
My father sped off to the closest nursery and purchased a sapling he could hoist over his shoulder. Around the same time, his father had intercepted Lou, the building inspector, at a neighborhood bar. Otto had tipped him off that the inspector was a practicing lush. My grandfather had gone to buy him a drink.
Otto told my father to stand behind the tree and lean against it as casually as possible. My grandfather led the soused building inspector to the narrow shadow of the young tree and pointed.
“Ya see, Lou? A tree in the front yard, just like the law says. Now let me show you the rest of ’em.”
Lou grunted, satisfied enough, as my grandfather walked him backward away from the tree. My father stayed frozen to the spot, his eyes on Otto. My grandfather walked the building inspector the width of the lawn and gently steered him behind the house, the two of them babbling all the way.
The moment they were out of sight, Otto told my father to dig up the tree and replant it at the next house, exactly as he had done before. And when the building inspector and my grandfather came around from behind the second house, there was the same tree sitting in front of it.
“Well done, Bert,” the building inspector told my grandfather when they reached the last house. Otto volunteered to drive the building inspector home, and shuffled him off down the street. My father asked his father what he should do now.
“Plant the tree,” my grandfather said. “We’ve gotta start somewhere.”
We had reached the last house on the block and our car. My father pointed up at the large tree, now almost 40 years old, standing guard over the block.
“I don’t get it, Dad. Why did you bring me here today?” I asked.
“Kevin, that story happened on the 4th of July.”
Someday, if I have a son, I think I’ll take him flag counting. I’ll explain that it’s a tradition my father and I had. We’ll go back home to Michigan and I’ll show him that tree his grandfather and great-grandfather planted on that 4th of July so long ago. I hope it will remind us both that silly traditions are how you come to be yourself – and sometimes that’s all the justification they need.