Morning flag raising ceremonies have been camp routine staples probably as long as there have been camps. It seems, though, that there is much confusion over how to properly display and care for the flag and its attendant components. This month, we’re going to look at some history and traditions, some relevant laws and customs, and some of the details that can help make sure that your flag flies well all the time.
Did You Know?
We’ve all heard at some time that the flag should never touch the ground. But did you know that the detailed instructions on how and when to fly our national ensign are part of the U.S. Code, having been adopted by Congress in the 1920s? Title 4, Chapter 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Code contains guidance on how to display the flag respectfully. There is a pretty extensive list of “dos” and “don’ts,” including:
- Use of the flag as a ceiling covering or as a backdrop or for advertising is prohibited. When flying the U.S. flag, it should be free to move, with the “union” (the stars) always up. The flag may be flown upside down (with the union upside down) only to signal extreme distress over life or property. Finally, when the flag becomes unserviceable, it should be disposed of respectfully, preferably by solemn burning.
- In a display or collection, no flag should fly higher. So it follows that where several flags are displayed on a single pole (POW or state flag), the U.S. flag should always be above the others.
- The flag should be raised briskly and lowered slowly.
- The flag should only be displayed outside during daylight hours, unless it is artificially lit.
- In ceremonies where other flags are included, the U.S. flag should be raised first and lowered last.
- The flag should always be flown at the top of the pole, except where executive order directs a half-staff posting. In that case, the flag should be raised briskly to the top of the pole and slowly lowered to the halfway point on the pole. There are very specific circumstances under which the flag should be ordered to fly at half staff, as a mark of respect after the deaths of principal government officials, specifically the president, vice president, members of Congress, governors, or members of the Supreme Court. Contrary to recent practice, there are no provisions in the statute to pay tribute to victims of any tragedy, manmade or natural.
- On Memorial Day, the flag is flown at half staff until noon, when it is raised back to the top of the pole until it is brought down (“retired”) at the end of the day.
If you happen to be on a military installation at sunset, you should be aware that most bases coordinate their “colors” ceremony so that they all happen at the same time. Pedestrians — both military and civilian — stop and face the flag if they can see it (or face the direction from which music is coming). Even drivers stop their vehicles immediately and wait until they see pedestrians move along. If you’ve never experienced that, you should. It is soul stirring and moving beyond words.
What about Care?
Contrary to what you may have heard, the U.S. Code allows for the flag to be repaired and cleaned as necessary. While flying a soiled or damaged U.S. flag is expressly prohibited, you don’t need to replace a torn flag if it can be neatly fixed. A faded flag, though, needs to be replaced. Most veterans’ organizations and scout groups collect flags that need to be retired and often do that in a solemn ceremony annually on June 14, Flag Day. Consider hosting that ceremony for your community at your camp.
What about the Pole?
U.S. flags are made in standard sizes, so the flagpoles from which they normally fly are sized proportionally. For example, military bases occasionally fly what’s known as the “Post Flag,” which measures 10 feet tall (“hoist”) and 19 feet long (“fly”). Those are usually displayed on poles 70 to 80 feet high! Flags at camp are seldom that large, though, with 3.5 by 6.75 feet being the most common. Convention and safety hold that the proper pole height for a flag that size is between 15 and 20 feet tall. There are even standards that describe how the pole itself should be made to make sure that it’s safe and won’t buckle in strong winds when the appropriately sized flag is flying.
While the details aren’t all that important here, when buying a pole, ensure that it meets American National Standards Institute and National Association of Architectural Metal Manufacturers construction standard ANSI/NAAMM FP1001-97. To install the pole correctly, buy a special sleeve into which the pole will slide. Flagpoles that are 20 feet tall are 4 to 5 inches in diameter, and the sleeves are often about 6 to 8 inches. This is a worthwhile step, because setting that short piece of pipe in the ground straight is much, much easier than wrestling with a 20-foot-tall pole and getting that to stay while the concrete hardens. Expect to dig a hole at least 3.5 feet deep and 2 feet in diameter. Depending on the frost where you are, you may need to dig even deeper (Anchor Flag and Flagpole, 2000). As an additional bonus to the “sleeve” method, when you need to replace the rope (“halyard”), neither circus experience nor a lift truck will be required: You can simply take the pole down and do all the work at ground level!
This very significant foundation has a big job to do in resisting the toppling forces resulting from the wind’s tug on the flag at the other end of the pole. Cutting corners on this part of your flag display could have very serious consequences for surrounding facilities or bystanders. Though I’m usually a fan of using just as much material as you need, this is one time where I endorse “more is better.”
At the top of the pole is the finial. It’s usually a sphere. You may have heard that inside the finial is a razor, a book of matches, and one bullet. The idea is that the last person standing during an attack needs supplies to prevent the flag and the person from being taken by the attacker. He’s to shred and burn the flag and then commit suicide. This is not only untrue, but it’s simply absurd. The finial simply provides a shape at the top of the pole to shed water and ice and cover the end of the pipe that is the flagpole. There is, however, a pulley for the halyard to run through for the flag to go up and down. On fancier poles, the pulley is arranged in a track (called a “truck”) that allows the flag to swing around the pole without tangling.
Now you have what you need to properly install, display and maintain your flagpole. Next season’s ceremonies can be respectful and safe, too!
Streufert, D. (2005). The flag of the United States of America. Retrieved from www.usflag.org 
Anchor Flag and Flagpole. (2000). Ground sleeve specifications for commercial poles. Retrieved from www.anchorflagandflagpole.com/Commercial_Installation.htm 
Rick Stryker is a professional engineer with a particular passion for helping camps with infrastructure, planning, and regulatory issues. He can always be reached at email@example.com  or 570.828.4004.