Richard McKenna (1913-1964) in `The Sand Pebbles’ 1962

        “Tomorrow we begin our summer cruising to show the flag on the Hunan rivers.  At home in America, when today reaches them, it will be Flag Day.  They will gather to do honor and hear speeches.  For us who wear the uniform, every day is Flag Day.  We pay our honor in act and feeling and we have little need of words.  But on this one day it will not hurt us to grasp briefly in words the meaning of our flag.  


        Our flag is the symbol of America.  I want you to grasp what America really is.  It is more than marks on a map.  It is more than buildings and land.  America is a living structure of human lives, of all the American lives that ever were and ever will be.  We on this ship are collectively only a tine, momentary bit of that structure.  How can we, standing here, grasp the whole of America?  Think now of a great cable.  The cable has no natural limiting length.  It can be spun out forever.  We can unlay it into ropes, and the ropes into strands, and the strands into yarns, and none of them have any natural ending.  But now let us pull a yarn apart into single fibers and each man of us can find himself.  Each fiber is a tiny, flat yellowish thing, a foot or a yard long by nature.  One American life from birth to death is like a single fiber.  Each one is spun into the yarn of a family and the strand of a home town and the rope of a home state.  The states are spun into the great, unending unbreakable cable that is America.  


        No man, not even the President, can experience the whole of America directly.  We can only feel it when the strain comes on, the terrible strain of hauling our history into a stormy future.  Then the cable springs taut and vibrant.  It thins and groans as the water squeezes out and all the fibers press each to each in iron hardness.  Even then, we know only the fibers that press against us.  We can know America through our flag which is its symbol.  In our flag the barriers of time and space vanish.  All America that ever was and ever will be lives every moment in our flag.  Wherever in the world two or three of us stand together under our flag, all America is there.  When we stand proudly and salute our flag, that is what we know wordlessly in the passing moment.  


        Understand that our flag is not the cloth but the pattern of form and color manifested in the cloth.  It could have been any pattern once, but our fathers chose that one.  History has made it sacred.  The honor paid it in uncounted acts of individual reverence has made it live.  


        Every morning in American schoolrooms children present their hearts to our flag.  Every morning and evening we render it our military salutes.  And so the pattern lives and it can manifest itself in any number of bits of perishable cloth, but the pattern is indestructible.  For us on this ship, every day is Flag Day.  Civilians are only morally bound to salute our flag.  We are legally bound.  All Americans are morally bound to die for our flag, if called upon.  We are legally bound.  Only we live our lives in day to day readiness for that sacrifice.  We have sworn our oaths and cut our ties.  We have given up wealth and home life, except as this ship is our home.  It marks us.  It sets us apart.  We are uncomfortable reminders, in time of peace.  Those of you who served in the last war will know what I mean.  


        It is said that will be no more war.  We must pretend to believe that.  But when war comes, it is we who will take the first shock and buy time with our lives.  It is we who keep the faith.  We are not honored for it.  We are called mercenaries on the outposts of an empire.  …  We serve the flag.  The trade we all follow is the give and take of death.  It is for that purpose that the American people maintain us.  Any one of us who believes he has a job like any other, for which he draws a money wage, is a thief of the food he eats and a trespasser in the bunk in which he lies down to sleep.”

 — Richard McKenna (1913-1964) in `The Sand Pebbles‘ 1962

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One thought on “Richard McKenna (1913-1964) in `The Sand Pebbles’ 1962

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