Last night, Kerstin's Uncle John and Aunt Patty took us to Sunset Beach, at Cape May Point. We didn't know it at the time, but we had arrived just in time to witness the Sunset Beach Flag Ceremony, which is held every evening at sunset from May through September.
Each flag flown on Sunset Beach during this season is a flag that has served as a veteran's casket flag and that has been donated by the family of a veteran. Last night, the flag was from the casket of a young man named Ted Grier, whose plane had gone down in the South Pacific 60 years ago, on June 29, 1945.
Soon after we pulled up to the beach, a man on a loudspeaker welcomed us and apologized for the lack of sunset. He said he might need the help of a veteran or two for the ceremony. Then everyone who had collected there doffed their caps and stood in salute as a tape of Kate Smith singing "God Bless America" played, followed by the National Anthem. As the National Anthem began, the man in the sound booth came out and asked for a veteran to step forward and help lower the flag. One man came up and started pulling the ropes as "Taps" began to play, whereupon the man from the booth asked for one more veteran. Uncle John, a retired Navy commander, stepped forward and helped to fold the casket flag. At the end of the ceremony, the dozen or so people standing salute applauded.
"Well, you may not have known that was going to happen," I said, "but you got here just in time. They needed you."
For people around the world who think they know about Americans from watching CNN or American TV shows, there's something missing from those sources. I think you can probably learn more about Americans -- our natural ability to move from the life of an individual to the enormity of collective responsibility and national honor -- from a simple, quiet, 10-minute flag ceremony on a New Jersey beach, than you can from watching a thousand hours of American prime-time TV.