Thursday, May 27, 2010

Is it Half-Staff or Half-Mast?

This picture of the Memorial honoring the USS Arizona raises an interesting question. Is the flag shown in the photograph flying at half-mast or half-staff? Strange as it may seem, the concepts behind the question are sometimes hotly debated. The simple answer, though not accepted by all, is that a flag or ensign flown from a ship's rigging is placed a half-mast; a flag flown on land from a flag pole is placed at half-staff. In the cast of the Arizona, the flagstaff seen in the picture is attached to the severed mainmast. When the Arizona was yet in commission, she would have flown her ensign not from the mainmast but from a spar or gaff at her stern. She is not in commission now, but a U.S. Navy color guard raises and lowers the flag daily. However, to avoid injuring the sensitivities of any sailors who may read this blog, let's concede that the Stars and Stripes flying over the USS Arizona flies at half-mast. That seems only appropriate.

The custom of showing mourning by displaying a flag raised below its highest position, began at sea. It appears to go back at least to the sixteenth century, but its source is uncertain. It is often asserted that the lowered flag leaves a vacant space for "deaths invisible flag." This is a romantic notion likely invented to explain a tradition already long established. It is doubtful that superstitious sailors would want death's flag, invisible or not, flying over their ship. One author reports that flying a flag at half-mast replaced another custom. "Yards were once 'cockbilled,' and rigging was slacked off as a sign of mourning" (Page 48, Naval Customs, Traditions, and Usage, Lieutenant Commander Leland P. Lovette, U.S. Navy, United States Naval Institute: Annapolis, Maryland, 1939). Those nautical terms are difficult for the landlubber to comprehend. The illustration below shows a mast with cockbilled yards. Lovette goes on to explain that "The half-masting of colors is in reality a survival of days when a slovenly appearance characterized mourning."

In 1826 John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on the same day, July Fourth. When word reached the USS Constitution, the battleship honored the former presidents by half-masting its ensign, firing gun salutes, and cockbilling its yards (Journal of George Jones quoted by Lovette). Over the years, only flying a flag at half-mast has survived as a sign of mourning. No doubt sailors were not happy to see their vessel not in proper order.

The practice of flying a flag at half-mast spread to land. The terminology evolved from half-mast to half-staff. Adherents of the term half-mast point out that the dictionary entry for half-staff refer the reader to half-mast. Half-staff is, after all, the original term. However, the U.S. Flag Code exclusively uses the term half-staff. Still, the Flag Code only addresses display of flags on land. It seems logical and appropriate that a flag is half-masted when flown from a mast and half-staffed when flown from a flagstaff.

Why is the flag raised to full-staff before lowering it to the half-staff position? Why must it be raised to full-staff before it is lowered? The full-staff position is the "saluting point." It is raised there to honor the flag, which symbolizes the whole nation. The flag then is lowered to half-staff as a sign of mourning. At days end, it is again raised to full- staff to again salute the flag, and then it is lowered.

What is the position of half-staff? Must it be the actual half way point? Here common sense is the rule. The flag is lowered to the position that fits its surroundings. By American usage, any position below full-staff is considered to be half-staff. Tree branches, bushes or buildings may dictate the position of the flag when flown at half-staff. It must not touch or be entangled in anything below it. Conversely, it needs to fly low enough that it does not appear to be positioned there by mistake.

Must the flag be raised to full staff exactly at noon? Again logic should rule. The day's events may dictate a time before or after the stroke of twelve. Nevertheless, it is better for a flag to be raised to full staff at eleven o'clock in the morning than to remain at half-staff at four in the afternoon.

We pay attention to the details so that our sign of mourning will not be appear to be "cockbilled" or sloppy. Nonetheless, most observers will not notice many of these details. We show we care by doing it correctly. The important thing is to honor our dead appropriately, that their service and sacrifice will not be forgotten.

Visit for more about displaying the flag on Memorial Day.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Norway’s Constitution Day and the Clean Flag

At the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, Norway was united with Denmark.  Having been allied with France, Denmark found itself in the loser's column at the end of the Napoleonic Wars.  As a result, the Congress of Vienna conveyed Norway from Denmark to Sweden.  The Norwegians, unhappy with the arrangement, declared their independence on May 17th 1814 and produced a constitution for their new nation.  The king of Sweden invaded Norway and after a short war the parties signed the ceasefire of Moss on August 14th of the same year.  The Swedes, by this agreement, recognized Norway's Independence, its constitution and its borders.  In return, the Norwegians accepted the personal union of the two nations under the Swedish king.  Each had a separate democratic parliament.  However, the king often sided with his Swedish ministers against the Norwegian desires and interests.  One major issue that caused friction between the king's two realms centered on the display of flags.  The king wanted his two kingdoms to display a common flag.  The common flag favored by the king was the Swedish flag with the addition of an "X" shaped cross on a red background in the upper portion of the flag close to the flagstaff.  The Norwegians, however, wanted their own flag.  They had a historical attachment to the Danish flag, but the Swedish flag reminded them the union the Norwegians did not choose.

In 1814 the Norwegians chose a flag of their own.   They added the emblem from the Norway's coat of arms to the Danish flag.  The lion of Saint Olaf with a battle-axe appeared in the upper corner of the flag next to the flagstaff.  The king allowed the flag's use in northern waters, but required that the union flag be flown in other international waters.

In 1821 Norway adopted a new flag that was once again based on the Danish flag.  The Norwegians added a narrow blue cross in the center of the white Nordic cross found on the Danish flag.  Again, the king only allowed merchant ships to display the flag in northern waters.  In other international waters, a new union flag would be used.  It added a new union design in the canton corner of the Norwegian flag.  Swedish merchant ships would fly the Swedish flag with the same union device added to that flag. The Norwegians disliked the new union emblem.  It was formed by taking two horizontal wedges from the Swedish flag and combining them with two vertical wedges from the new Norwegian flag.  The Norwegians said the complicated union device looked like a "herring salad."  The wanted to display their own "clean" flag at home and abroad.

The king opposed any change to the flags.  However, in 1898 the Storting (Norway's parliament) adopted the clean flag as Norway's only flag.  The king also refused to accept other acts of the Norwegian parliament.  The Storting then declared that the king had abdicated and that the Norwegian throne was vacant.  Prince Carl of Denmark accepted the Norwegian crown in 1905.  He ascended the throne as King Haakon VII.

Today, the Norwegians display their "clean flag" proudly.  Especially on the anniversary of their constitution, Norwegians carry their beloved flag in huge public parades.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Flag Over Disneyland's Town Square

 Flags abound at Disneyland.  Over the years flags have flown all over the park, all kinds of flags.  Prominent among them all is the Stars and Stripes.  The U.S. flag flies over the Main Street Train Station and also over Disneyland’s City Hall.  Walt reserved a special place of honor at the center of Town Square for Disneyland’s main flagpole.  Beginning on opening day, the Town Square flagpole has been the site of uncounted flag ceremonies.  It may, therefore, be surprising to discover that that a bandstand was originally planned for the spot.  A bandstand at the center of the Town Square?  What could be more appropriate?  Through the years the Disneyland Band has performed daily concerts at Town Square.    A bandstand could only enhance the band concerts.  So, what happened to the bandstand?  How is it that it was replaced by the flag pole?
During construction, workers built a magnificent bandstand and placed it on the exact spot where the flagpole now stands.  When Walt stood on the steps of the Railroad Station, the bandstand blocked the view of Main Street and Sleeping Beauty Castle.  As much as Walt wanted a bandstand, he recognized the greater importance of an unobstructed view.  He had planned Sleeping Beauty Castle as a “weenie.”  To work, a “weenie” must be visible.  For those unfamiliar with this term in “Disneyspeak,” we had better define the term.  In this special Disneyland vocabulary, the word means a visual prompt that attracts people from one location to another.  Walt explained it as follows:
What you need is a weenie, which says to people 'come this way.'   People won't go down a long corridor unless there's something promising at the end. You have to have something the beckons them to 'walk this way.'
Walt planned Sleeping Beauty Castle as a visual magnet to draw guest along Main Street to the Plaza.  If guests could not see the Castle, they would not hurry to the Plaza to start their adventures at Disneyland.  Yes, the bandstand had to go.  It was moved away.  What to put in its place?  An imagineer (Disneyspeak for a Park planner) passed an automobile accident on Wilshire Boulevard.  A car had knocked down a lamppost with a decorative base.  Disney purchased the base for five dollars, a paltry sum, even in 1954.  It was installed at Town Square as the base of a flagpole.  During the opening day ceremony for Disneyland, Walt read a specially written dedication for the Park.  Then the Governor of California, Goodwin Knight dedicated the flag.   His speech appeared to please Disney, but then what do you say to the Governor.  Today, Knight’s words ring a little jingoistic.
And as we dedicate the flag now we do it with the knowledge that we are the fortunate ones to be Americans and that we extend to everyone everywhere the great ideals of Americanism, brotherhood, and peace on earth goodwill towards all men.

Service men from all four military services then raised the flag over the Square.  Today, Goodwin Knight’s words are almost forgotten.  However, Disney’s words of dedication for Disneyland are recorded on a plaque at the base of the flagpole:

To all who come to this happy place... Welcome. Disneyland is your land.
Here age relives fond memories of the past... and here youth may savor
the challenge and promise of the future.
Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts
that have created America... with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.

Disney honored the nation by placing a flagpole prominently at Town Square.  He honored the nation daily with flag ceremonies.  It was appropriate then that the nation honored Walt at Town Square’s flagpole.  Late in the morning of December 15th in 1966, somber cast members (Disneyspeak for employees) lowered the flag to half staff.  Walt Disney had died earlier that morning.  Cast members and guests joined in mourning the man who created Disneyland.
            Since opening day fifty-five years ago, there have been daily flag ceremonies at the flagpole.  Not to raise the flag.  The United States flag is raised each day well before the Park opens.  However, each afternoon the flag is lowered with appropriate honors.  The Disneyland Band often plays.  Guest bands sometime provide the patriotic music. Bandstand or no bandstand, the bands are as much a part of Town Square as the flag pole itself with the five dollar ornamental lamppost base.  It was important to Walt that the nation be appropriately honored.  Disneyland is indeed “dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America.”

Ceremony lowering the Flag with a Disneyland High School All-Star Band.