Rock Valley, Ia. – Here’s why RAGBRAI bicyclists won’t roll across 24 depictions of the Stars and Stripes painted on the highway as they roll out of town Sunday morning between and beneath an avenue of actual, flapping flags: A minor debate erupted here over what qualifies as honoring versus desecrating the United States flag.
Herbert Rankin of Des Moines was the first to warn me, although I didn’t think much of it at the time. He left me a phone message to complain about the painted flags in Rock Valley after he saw a photo of them that ran in my column earlier this month about the town’s resolve to bounce back from its recent flooding and keep its pledge to launch RAGBRAI. Mayor Kevin Van Otterloo was pictured standing in the middle of the newly red, white and blue stretch of highway. I was there at the time. I didn’t think twice about it — except that it was yet one more example of the town’s dedication as a worthy host.
But then before I could return Rankin’s call, he left a second message to update me: Fellow veterans in Rock Valley apparently agreed with him. All the flags had been repainted because of the outcry.
That got my attention. Rankin was still worked up about the issue when I phoned him.
“That man is standing on the American flag!” said Rankin, 88, who fought in World War II.
“I’m probably a little fuddy-dud in your book,” he said.
Not at all, I assured him. My father, who served in Vietnam, taught me to respect the flag — never let it touch the soil, treat it with care, dispose of it properly, etc.
Rankin was an infantryman who stood “in snow up to my you-know-what” when he hit Europe at the end of the Battle of the Bulge, where he suffered shrapnel wounds.
“It disturbs me to no end the way people don’t respect the flag,” he said.
But in this case, I said, we’re talking about a representation of the flag intended to salute veterans and provide a patriotic send-off – with an honor guard standing at attention for two solid hours, from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. Sunday, as bicyclists roll past. The painters and Rankin share the same sentiments.
(Not to mention that the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld that the opposite sentiment, the burning of actual flags in protest, is protected free speech.)
Rankin did say he was proud how Mayor Van Otterloo handled the flap and even returned his phone call.
Here’s how the repainted highway looked today, with the blue field and stars repainted to create more innocuous, solid blocks of red and white stripes:
“We had a couple of local veterans that were quite upset, saying that we were disgracing the flag,” Van Otterloo said.
The backlash shocked him, too. He had directed traffic the entire time that dozens of his fellow townsfolk convened on the highway to paint the roadway.
One of the painters was a mother who has two sons in the military.
Not to mention that there will be so many and such massive flags flying overhead Sunday morning that few bicyclists might even noticed what is painted on the road below.
Ken VerBurg, one of the local veterans who objected to the flags, is quartermaster of Rock Valley’s VFW post and served in the Army during the Korean War.
“The fact that our flag was being walked on or rolled over — that was the issue,” VerBurg said.
He admitted that it’s “a very, very gray issue whether it’s right or wrong” and that the underlying “idea was great,” not done out of malice.
But he and other local vets weren’t going to stand there as bikes rolled over painted flags.
I have to admit that I’m flummoxed by this one. While I always follow my dad’s lead with the actual Stars and Stripes that I run up a pole, I would have biked across 24 painted flags Sunday morning thinking that Rock Valley was full of patriots — not protesters.
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