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. Its a charming
town, more so at this time of year with all the Christmas decorations
And at all the flags hanging high on all of the streetlights in
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 gentlemans 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 Id pop my head in to the Party HQ and see
who wouldnt talk to me there.
It turned out to be one of the more pleasant hours Ive 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 couldnt 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 doctors 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 Hoods 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 were 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. Thats 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 whod 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 doesnt much care for they earn a
forceful Id like to shoot em. This applies
to gays, government (at times), criminals, and anti-war protesters.
Heres the thing
dont believe it. Not Red. Hes
not that guy. Yeah, yeah, yeah, its 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 isnt 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
hes 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. Youve seen them, the Christmas
season things flapping from light poles in every town and suburb
in America. Theyre nice reminders.
But you dont put them above the American Flag.
Holding his thumb and forefinger about an inch apart, he said What
there is, theres a stack of laws and regulations about this
big governing use of the flag. Now Im not gonna yell at anyone
for attaching to there car the wrong way
even though just about
everyone is. I think its a good thing that folks are showing
the flag anyway they can. But when the city is putting them up
official. And official actions should be done right.
What it is, is millions of people died for that flag
what it stands for
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 theyre 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 wouldnt
go and do that. Sure wouldnt want that to happen. But
of people died for that flag. Doesnt seem so much to ask that
we give it proper respect.
The powers that be eventually got back to him.
Told me it wasnt 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 wouldnt 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 theyre 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
I had not.
I served in Korea. And I never have been one to
tell war stories
and Im 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
People your age have been lucky, I guess. You didnt
have to learn it. What it is, is when youre in the dark and
theres bullets all around. You cant 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
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
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
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 didnt
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 couldnt 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 Reds 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 youre old or rich and I havent earned enough
of either to be called Mister.
Ive always thought it was a term of respect.
Thank you for the company and the lesson, Mr. Cratch.