Flying the Flag for a Friend

by Kerry Dougherty

On the morning of the Fourth of July, on a leafy side street in Trenton, N.J., a tall, gray-haired man with a mustache will open his front door, step outside and solemnly hang an American flag.

He’ll pause for a minute, ponder the Stars and Stripes, and then he’ll whisper, “This is for you, Tom.”

Unlike those of us who catch flag fever only around Independence and Memorial days, this 80-something gent will simply be doing what he does every day.

Ever since my dad died in 1998.

He was my father’s closest friend for half a century. A widower now, the man lives alone in a house that once echoed with the sounds of young children, his wife’s piano and the barking of a long-gone beagle named Lady.

He’s the last surviving member of a quartet of friends.

This guy and my dad met when they were in their 20s and worked for a wire cable company near the city’s waterfront.

As Trenton morphed from a booming steel town to a rusty ghost town, their company packed up and left. But they didn’t. They stayed behind and found other jobs.

For years, they went to the same church. With their wives, they vacationed together. And played pinochle every Friday night.

The couples lived just a few blocks apart on similar streets.

My parents’ place was always easy to spot. I’d tell people it was the only house in the neighborhood that flew the American flag every day of the year.

Once I surprised my folks with a watercolor of the house. My mom loved it. My dad frowned.

“Where’s my flag?” he demanded.

Until that moment, I hadn’t noticed it missing.

The snapshot I’d sent to the mail-order artist had the ubiquitous flag in it. For reasons known only to her, Old Glory was omitted from the final product.

“Maybe the painter thought the flag would stand out too much against the pale yellow house,” my artistic mother suggested.

“Or maybe she’s a communist,” my father said. “Maybe she couldn’t bear to paint the Stars and Stripes. Ever think of that?”

I inherited that painting. I still wonder.

A few years after my parents died, the wife of dad’s best friend followed.

When I spoke with him by phone a few months ago, he told me that despite a close, extended family, he desperately missed being part of a happy foursome.

“We had fun,” he said wistfully.

Many years ago, he wrote a letter to me about how much he loved my dad.

… I have not forgotten your parents,” he wrote. “I had a great love for your Dad. He had a very large, positive and permanent influence upon my life for which I am profoundly grateful. I wish I had expressed it more when he was living.

Then he added this:

Every day that it is not raining or snowing, I put the American flag out with this comment to the heavens: ‘This is for you, Tom.’

As I was chewing on what to write for Independence Day, I thought of the man living alone in New Jersey, quietly honoring his country and his friend every day of the year.

I checked the Fourth of July weather forecast for Trenton.

Sunny skies, highs in the mid-80s.

Ah, perfect. Another great day for flying the flag.

Republished with permission from A version of this column originally appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on July 2, 2009.