Blue. White. And a Guy Named Red.
Washington, North Carolina
December 3, 2001

I walked around Washington, NC. looking at the various flags hanging from doors, in windows, on cars, and on clothing. It’s a charming town, more so at this time of year with all the Christmas decorations out.

And at all the flags hanging high on all of the streetlights in town.

Small towns do the flag thing really well. This is not only quantity, it is quality as well. The flags are new, they are large, they are prominent and, if you ask around they usually carry a meaning to the citizens beyond a vague notion of “support”.

I suspect they do flags well because of guys like Red Cratch.

As I strolled through town I noticed a doorway that proudly declared it was the home of the Washington County Republican Party. I had earlier looked at another storefront that had filled its windows with copies of letters, ads, and freeform rants as one of the County Republican Party officials more or less declared war on all the others. I had found this gentleman’s office to see if he would fill me in on what was happening since the various letters in the window were generally poorly written and undecipherable. It certainly looked like enough conflict to be interesting. Someone in his office had stopped just short of throwing me out…but only because I was a good twenty years younger and sixty pounds heavier than she was. I figured I’d pop my head in to the Party HQ and see who wouldn’t talk to me there.

It turned out to be one of the more pleasant hours I’ve spent on this trip.

I walked in and a voice from somewhere in front of me gave me a big, hardy “How ya doing, today!” It was not a question. It was a declaration. It said, “You must be doing well and so am I”. All in all, a pretty fine way to be greeted.

Except I had no idea who said it. I couldn’t see anyone.

“How can I help you, young man?”

I looked past the conference table that fills the front part of the office and through the window frame beyond. There was no window in the frame, like you see in a doctor’s office. Peeking out just over the bottom of the frame was some tousled gray hair, a gray and pallid forehead, and two eyes that, though they were heavy-lidded and surrounded by the wrinkles of time, danced with more life than anyone should have.

Red has a slow and deliberate manner of speaking, as if he is casting about for the perfect words, not just those that are good enough. When I asked him if there was any place where I could find out more about the current controversy in Washington, NC., he thought about it a bit, invited me to sit, thought about it some more, and then asked me why I wanted to know.

I told him about seeing Hood’s window and the attendant reading material. I told him it was similar to what the Republican Party is going through in other places, beating the hell out of each other to their own detriment. He laughed at that, though a bit, and finally drawled out, “What it is, is we’re having a few growing pains is all”.

In the very recent past, the Republican Party of Washington County North Carolina has had, roughly, 1500 converts from the Democratic Party. This is in an area with 43,000 voters. That’s a pretty good conversion rate. This along with an influx of Party members who have moved into the area has caused, as Red accurately put it, some growing pains. In the steady trickle of folks through the office you could see the different groupings. Red, a former Solid South Democrat. Then a moderate and thoughtful ex-cop, New Jersey transplant. A moneyed attorney who’d grown up in the South, conservative from day one.

We talked awhile, rambling through various topics. It was a fun, pointless conversation. He had flashes of hyperbole. When confronted with a group of people he doesn’t much care for they earn a forceful “I’d like to shoot ‘em.” This applies to gays, government (at times), criminals, and anti-war protesters.

Here’s the thing…don’t believe it. Not Red. He’s not that guy. Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s not the nicest thing to say. I have friends that fall into all of those categories and it makes me sad to hear it.

But Red isn’t shooting anyone.

I think if Red and I talked for long enough we would find that we agreed on almost nothing. But his straightforward manner and his guileless delivery are charming.

Another thing about Red…he’s a one man flag etiquette machine. When the flags that adorn the light poles in Washington first went up, they were maybe eight feet above the ground. Then the holiday banners went up. You’ve seen them, the Christmas season things flapping from light poles in every town and suburb in America. They’re nice reminders.

But you don’t put them above the American Flag.

Holding his thumb and forefinger about an inch apart, he said “What there is, there’s a stack of laws and regulations about this big governing use of the flag. Now I’m not gonna yell at anyone for attaching to there car the wrong way…even though just about everyone is. I think it’s a good thing that folks are showing the flag anyway they can. But when the city is putting them up…that’s official. And official actions should be done right.”

“What it is, is millions of people died for that flag…for what it stands for…” he said.

He looks a little far away for a moment.

Red wrote letters to the city and county. “Told ‘em I was a citizen of the United States and a Veteran and told ‘em how they’re supposed to hang that flag. How they either gotta take the banners down or raise the flags up above them.”

I asked if he thought they should take the Holiday banners down.

“No,” he said, “I was hoping they wouldn’t go and do that. Sure wouldn’t want that to happen. But…millions of people died for that flag. Doesn’t seem so much to ask that we give it proper respect.”

The powers that be eventually got back to him.

“Told me it wasn’t enough of a priority at this time to take any action or incur any expense.”

The look on his face when he said it…when I said up above that Red wouldn’t shoot anyone…I might have been wrong.

Red got a lawyer and started preparing a case. He started talking to everyone who would listen. “Wrote to Mr. Rumsfeld, too. Well, I guess they thought about it some more. What they did, they moved all those flags up a few days ago. Up where they’re supposed to be. Above everything else, and lit properly at night.”

He looked up at me, maybe a little pride in his face, but a whole lot more relief than anything else.

“Let me ask you something, young man. You ever heard of Ira Hayes?”

I had not.

“Well…I served in Korea. And I never have been one to tell war stories…and I’m not going to start telling any now. But you look him up. You do that.”

He looked along the street, taking in each light pole and each flag.

“People your age have been lucky, I guess. You didn’t have to learn it. What it is, is when you’re in the dark and there’s bullets all around. You can’t see a thing. Just hear the bullets. Hear moaning. Hear your friends…”

He looked up at the flags again.

“Every now and again a shell blows and lights up the sky. And you could see that flag up there. And you knew you still had that piece of property. You knew your buddies… they wasn’t all gone. You look up Ira Hayes, young man. When you do, you drop me a note.”

He took out a piece of paper and in a shaky hand scrawled out his address.

For those that do not know, Ira Hayes was a Pima Indian who served in WWII. He was a poor kid who joined the army to get off the Reservation and to make some money to send home to his family. With the exception of one shining moment his service was honorable but not particularly spectacular.

The one exception happened on February 23, 1945. Iwo Jima. In the famous picture of the Marines planting the flag, the man to the far left, arms outstretched having given a forceful upward thrust, is Ira Hayes. He turned 23 a month earlier. After the famous picture was printed and reprinted ad nauseum, Hayes and the other three survivors from the picture were sent on a wildly successful bond selling tour that raised massive amounts of money for the war effort. Ira was freaked out by the whole thing. The Platoon he was in had 45 men in it at the beginning of the battle. He was one of five survivors. On the tour Hayes repeatedly pleaded for others to understand that he was not a hero. The heroes were the ones who didn’t come back. He begged to be sent back to the front lines. He stated over and over, “I wish that guy had never made that picture”. After his discharge from the service Ira couldn’t quite get it together. He turned into a drunk. At the age of 33, just a few weeks shy of the tenth anniversary of the event, he fell, drunk, into an irrigation ditch on the Reservation and died of exposure.

Millions and millions of people.

As I took the slip of paper with Red’s address on it, I thanked him, and as I had done repeatedly throughout our conversation, called him Mr. Cratch. He had gently corrected me each time. He smiled up at me with those dancing eyes and said, “You only get called Mister when you’re old or rich and I haven’t earned enough of either to be called Mister.”

I’ve always thought it was a term of respect.

Thank you for the company and the lesson, Mr. Cratch.

>back to Dispatches Index