I was driving down Grand Avenue when my windshield was suddenly awash in Old Glory.
I did a quick look-see in the rearview mirror, ascertained that the right lane was clear and swerved over before I ran into something. Then I saw the problem: A big, black Ford F-250 was flying two American flags so enormous that they trailed more than a car length behind the bed of the truck.
I got alongside the guy, honked, got his attention and motioned for him to pull over. He did, probably hoping for a fight. We both pulled into a parking lot and I flipped a U-turn so we were driver’s window to driver’s window.
“What’s up with the giant flags?” I asked.
“What do you mean, what’s up with the flags,” he said. “You some kinda Iz-lamb or somethin’?”
“No, no. American through and through. I’m just wondering: why so big and why on your truck? Is there a parade somewhere?”
“Hell, no, there’s no goddamned parade,” he said. “This is just to show the world I’m proud of my country, proud of my flag and I ain’t afraid of ISIS.”
“ISIS?” I said. “Are there ISIS guys in Billings?”
“There better not be. If there are, though, these flags’ll give ’em somethin’ to think about.”
“You’re probably right,” I said. “But you should be careful. Those flags are huge, man. I almost crashed.”
“Boo-hoo,” he said. “You seen that statue of them guys on Iwo? I suppose that flag was too big, too. Anyways, it’s in the Constitution. You can’t restrict my right to fly the flag any way I want.”
I was going to ask him exactly where in the Constitution that was when an old woman drove past in a late-model Taurus, flying a flag with yellow, green and red bars. (I think it was an elderly woman; all I could see in the driver’s seat was a little halo of silver hair floating above the headrest.) The flag looked vaguely Italian. I told F-250 I had to split and went to chase down the Taurus.
It wasn’t easy, but half a mile later I was talking to a woman who identified herself as Verda. She told me the flag wasn’t Italian, it was Lithuanian. Why was she flying it?
“Well,” she said, “There are so many people with flags on their cars nowadays—American flags, POW flags, Montana flags and those awful Civil War flags—”
“You mean the Confederate battle flag?” I asked.
“Yes, that’s the one. And so anyhoo, I’d thought I’d honor my parents, who came here from Lithuania in 1906. Beet farmers, mostly.”
“Don’t you worry that somebody’s going to think you’re unpatriotic?”
She looked at me with an expression of pity. “Oh, good lord, honey. At my age? I don’t care what people think. Besides, I think people are insufficiently aware of the contributions of Lithuanian-Americans. I’m doing my part. I hope you learned something yourself.”
“Oh, yes, ma’am,” I said. “I will spread the word. Depend on it.”
I was halfway to where I’d been going earlier when I was passed by a pickup of indeterminate color, caked in mud and flying three, yes three, Confederate battle flags. I couldn’t resist. After I’d managed to pull this truck over, I spoke to the driver, a freckle-faced kid of maybe 25.
I started with the basics: “Why the Confederate flags?”
“Where have you been?” he asked back. “The Confederate flag is all about freedom, rebellion and Miranda Lambert, and telling adults to go to hell.”
“I like your attitude, but what about slavery and lynchings and German shepherds and centuries of oppression?”
“That was a long time ago,” he said, “and it sure as hell wasn’t around here. I was born in Fromberg. That ancient history’s got nothin’ to do with me.”
“Fromberg?” I said. “Then why fly that Southern flag at all? You might as well fly a Lithuanian flag. Did you know that Lithuanian-Americans—”
Before I could finish, he peeled off in a cloud of smoking tires and burning diesel.
Back on Grand Avenue, I thought there really was a parade. I saw, in addition to a sea of American flags, a VW van flying two freak flags, a dune buggy sporting a pirate banner, a converted school bus mounted with multiple Burning Man flags, an old Lincoln Continental flying a Crow Nation flag and a cement truck waving two Donald Trump flags.
It was getting to be too much. I was afraid I was going to be cited for DWOF, driving without flag. I was just about to head to the new flag store in the mall when I decided to hell with it. Instead, I drove home, cut a good-size rectangle out of a white bed sheet, stapled one edge to a pole and attached it to my car.
It’s my own little statement. In the midst of this flag frenzy, I give up.