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Aging US Flags Given a Dignified Goodbye

SAN JOSE, Calif. - When bright and beautiful, they were proud symbols of sacrifice.

But faded and frayed, they were forgotten. Flags that evoked images of Bunker Hill, Bataan and Baghdad ended their days in garages and Goodwill stores.

Hundreds of these forlorn flags rescued by San Francisco Bay Area veterans with the American Legion are honored every year in a dignified military ceremony that delivers them to a pyre.

Such ceremonies await thousands of other flags around the country during Flag Week, as proclaimed by President Barack Obama, at places as varied as Boy Scout camp-outs, Legion halls, Masonic centers and NASCAR racetracks.

June 14 is the traditional Flag Day, memorializing the day in 1777 when the Continental Congress adopted a U.S. flag to replace the British Union Jack.

The furnace at the scenic Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Los Altos, Calif., is where some of this year's old flags have gone to die.

At a farewell ceremony there Saturday, they received a tribute of a somber march, many salutes and a bugler's plaintive coda: "To the Colors."

A commander recited lines from the American Legion's Ceremony for the Disposal of Unserviceable Flags - "A flag may be a flimsy bit of printed gauze, or a beautiful banner of finest silk," he said. "Its intrinsic value may be trifling or great ... but it is a precious symbol of all that we and our comrades have worked for and lived for, and died for."

A Legionnaire dropped a small flag into an inverted helmet, doused it with kerosene, and set it aflame.

"To a clean and purging flame we commit these flags, worn out in worthy service," a chaplain recited.

It's a fitting end to flags that represent so much, the veterans said.

"It tells you about pride," said Harry Willeder, 79, who brought a dozen old flags to the American Legion ceremony, some solicited from neighbors on his daily walk through his East Estates neighborhood in Cupertino.

"It should never be destroyed or desecrated or anything like that without a proper ritual," the Korean War veteran said.

It's getting more complicated to give the Stars and Stripes a ritual send-off.

Back in 1923, the National Flag Conference created the Flag Code, which stated that when a flag "is no longer a fitting emblem for display, it should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning."

That was easy in the days of cotton and wool, before the Clean Air Act and wildfire phobia.

Now, burning synthetics such as nylon and polyester releases unpatriotic fumes of formaldehyde, ammonia, carbon monoxide, cyclopentanone, oxides of nitrogen and even traces of hydrogen cyanide.

Firefighters fear flag-fueled infernos. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District's official burn season for everything, including flags, closed last month.

San Jose's Bay Area Mortuary accepts flags to be cremated with veterans. All year long, it collects flags in a big box.

"Through our program, these retired flags are destined for a final resting place with those who fought to defend those ideals," said KC Crawford of Bay Area Mortuary.

American Legion member Walter Waite, of San Jose, served in the Navy from 1945 to 1958. Waite, who lost a son to combat, brought to Saturday's ceremony a burial flag that he found at a Goodwill store.

"It always upsets me to find them there," he said.

He was startled, and saddened, to find another flag at a weekend garage sale.

" 'It used to belong to our dad,' they said. 'We don't need it anymore,' " he said.

He paid 50 cents.

Then he retired it in honor of its service, something far beyond price.

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