Cook: They pledge allegiance

Cook: They pledge allegiance

May 16th, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

Chattanooga Public Works employee Eddie Poe attaches the final new American flag to a light pole Thursday along the Veterans Bridge across the Tennessee River. Mayor Andy Berke hosted a ceremony at the Bluff View Sculpture Garden in honor of the new flags.

Photo by John Rawlston/Times Free Press.

Standing there with my press credentials and flinty newsroom gruff, I'm listening to the mayor speak on Thursday morning, trying to think up some hardnosed Woodward-and-Bernstein question, when blast it, I get choked up. Teary. A little weak in the knees. A little verklempt.

"Just something in my eye," I muttered.

It had been there all week, ever since Carolyn Johnson from the city's Transportation Department called with a sweet disruption to this Donald Sterling/Boko Haram/won't-this-handbasket-to-hell-please-slow-down news cycle.

"We're raising the flags," she said.

Thursday morning, Veterans Bridge got its flags back, as city workers in lift trucks hung 30 American flags on the bridge flagpoles. The day was especially windy, as if on cue.

From folding chairs in the Bluff View sculpture garden, about 50 Chattanoogans -- veterans, families, friends, councilmen, new police Chief Fred Fletcher -- joined Mayor Andy Berke for a 20-minute ceremony as workers raised the final flag. And it was 20 minutes of feel-good, lump-in-your-throat America.

"I'll never cross this bridge the same way again," Berke said.

During the cold winter months, the city takes the flags down. Not long ago, they thought they'd have to take them down forever.

For the last 10 years, an anonymous donor has paid the $40,000 to fly all 30 flags and their annual replacements. In December, that stopped.

But something else started.

Thanks to Scott McKenzie, who called City Hall to see if he could fund a flag in honor of his dad, the Veterans Bridge Flag Initiative allows regular people -- you, me -- to purchase a flag in honor of a service man or woman. It costs $75. The flag flies from May to November. The mayor writes a personal proclamation. When the flag comes down, it's yours.

That first day, Johnson sold out of flags by lunch. She started taking orders for 2015.

"I've got 15 left," she said.

So if you bike, drive or run across Veterans Bridge, remember this: Starting today, each of the 30 flags has a life story behind it.

Here's one. Roger Kearney Caruthers. His flag's first on the south side of the bridge, near Battery Place. He came home from Vietnam in a wheelchair. He learned how to herd cattle on his farm from a four-wheeler. Taught flag etiquette in schools. Loved his nieces like they were treasure.

There's Donald Gravestock, two flags up from Caruthers. He fudged his age to enlist in the Navy. The Germans bombed his ship, and he watched it sink while swimming in the ocean for hours until help arrived. Discovering his real age, the government sends him home. He waits, bides his time, then does the obvious: re-enlists.

Wesley Charles King. He won a Purple Heart for surviving Pearl Harbor, and three years later, was flying over Europe on D-Day when his plane was attacked. Barely, just barely, the plane sputters back to England for a crash-landing.

Forgetting his own safety, he stays in the burning plane to help all of his crew mates escape.

He is the last man on board when it explodes.

"But today, with this flag flying, we remember his bravery," Berke said.

Flags were raised in honor of vets from the Gulf wars. Afghanistan. Somalia. One man who witnessed the Japanese surrender. An honor guard from "Old Ironsides." One man who volunteered in the Israeli Army at age 72.

I could go on and on. And will.

Lawrence Mitchell, who volunteered for Vietnam, then, years later, volunteered again for Desert Storm.

"Larry, I love you," said his brother -- and councilman -- Jerry Mitchell during the ceremony.

Jonathan Hall, a combat medic who was killed in Afghanistan while rendering aid to another soldier.

Scott Packard, who served in Desert Storm then the Iraq War and is set to be deployed again.

R.T. Allen McKenzie, who piloted ships that put Marines onto Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

James Knight, on board the first boat into Nagasaki after Fat Man fell.

And Jack Gilleland, a Citadel graduate and Army colonel during World War II, and the reason I found myself wiping away tears in the wind Thursday.

He was our grandfather. We called him Papa.

He died just a few months ago, around Valentine's Day. My mom had already purchased a flag for him, and each time she took him to the doctor, and then to the hospital, she drove down Veterans Bridge.

"Look Daddy," she said. "That's where your flag will go."

So yes, there was something in my eye.

My heart, too.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.