Sunday, July 3, 2011

Beach Tales: From the files of “The Things They Didn’t Tell Me When I Signed On for this Navy Spouse Gig”—Flag Etiquette 101 (a short work of non-fiction)

          One day while driving onboard Naval Base San Diego, the car in front of me stopped.  I don’t mean pulled over to the side and slowed down, but stopped, right there in the middle of the street.  No blinkers.  No crosswalk in sight.  Not even a jaywalking sailor in the middle of the road.  The car just stopped.  And I, not expecting this, allowed the front bumper of my car to kinda/sorta “kiss” the back bumper of his car.  No big surprise, the elderly driver got out of his car and gave me a lesson I’ll never ever forget.  But the lesson was not about paying attention while driving, but about the proper way to show respect for the American Flag.
          Here’s the thing:  the reason the elderly gentleman had stopped his car was because it was time for “colors.”  Thankfully, the man also took the time to explain to me what that meant, because I'd only been married to my sailor for a few months and I was utterly clueless. 
“Colors” is the ceremony performed twice a day (at 0800 and at sunset) to raise and lower the American Flags posted throughout the base.  While the flag is hoisted, the National Anthem blares base-wide on the base Public Address system.  While the flag is lowered, a bugler bugles Retreat over the PA system.  During such time, all outdoor activity comes to a complete stop, and that includes a soccer game in progress.  Proper flag etiquette requires that everyone (not just military in uniform, but those out of uniform and those of us who never wore a uniform) stop and turn and face the direction of the flag, even if it is blocks away.   
So for any of you who may ever have cause to drive onboard a military installation, heed this lesson:  if “colors” plays, stop the car.  If driving behind a three-star admiral, stop (and I can’t emphasize this enough) before your car rear-ends his. 
      Another lesson I learned the hard way is the proper way to honor the flag during the hoisting or lowering ceremony.  Perhaps for those of you who paid attention in kindergarten, it’s second nature to face the flag and stand at attention with your right hand (palm open) over your heart (men removing their hats and holding them over their left shoulder so that their hand is over their heart.)  But when you are standing on the dais it’s easy to get flustered.  And one time I, flanked by all kinds of military brass and standing up there with hundreds of people watching, put my left hand over my right shoulder.  The little old lady standing next to me helped me out by reaching out and tugging my left hand down and putting my right one in place.  Needless to say, a lot of people approached me after the ceremony to ask me how many glasses of wine I’d had at the reception earlier.  (Perhaps a more important lessen here is to not drink too many glasses of wine at the reception earlier.)   
          Another thing I don’t remember ever learning is how to honor the flag in a moving column, as in a parade.  And based on my observations of 4th of July parades, not many people know this either (or choose to ignore the courtesy.)  Simply, civilians should stand and place their right hand over their heart when the flag passes in front of them, broadly defined as six paces before and beyond.  Me telling you this is the easy way to learn this lesson.  Trust me, I learned it the hard way, when my grandfather grabbed me by the earlobe and hoisted me to my feet as the flag passed.  This was particularly embarrassing because I was 48 years old at the time. 
          If you have any questions on civilian flag etiquette, you can read the code yourself at  It’s not quite as fast-paced reading as, say, a Dan Brown thriller, but it’s good stuff to know. 


Rhonda Hopkins said...

LOL! Oh my. I must forward this to my niece. She's here in TX waiting to pop out a baby in the next week or two. After that she'll be headed to San Diego where her Navy Husband is stationed. I'd hate to see her rear-end anyone. Especially a 3 Star General. :-D (Still giggling by the way).

Anita said...

As a former den mother, I know some of what to do but had never heard of 'colors'. Great post for the Fourth of July.

Sandy Cody said...

Nice post, Jayne. It reminded me of not just flag etiquette, but of all the things we take for granted. Thanks to you and all the military families for the independence we celebrate this weekend.

PJ Sharon said...

Don't you hate learning things the hard way? Thanks for the reminder, Jayne.

Alica McKenna Johnson said...

I didn't know that! They need to have a handbook for new military wives!

Melissa Smith said...

As military brat, I did know some of that. Great reading. Forwarding it on to some friends. Happy Fourth of July!