It's called Retiring the Colors and is the only time the American flag and a pair of scissors are permitted to cross paths.
It happened recently on a breezy Flag Day evening, as a solemn procession of 10 Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts came to a halt on the lawn of the American Legion post in Lake Ronkonkoma.
They were holding old American flags, no longer suitable for display, which had been dropped off at the post by local residents. Using scissors handed out by the post chaplain, the Scouts cut the blue fields with the stars away from the red and white stripes -- rendering them fit for disposal by fire.
"You don't burn the American flag," explained Michael Lowis, the chaplain and former post commander of the William Merritt Hallock American Legion Post 155. "When we disassemble the colors, it's no longer a flag, and then you can burn that."
American flags will be widely displayed during the Independence Day holiday, as they are on the nation's other primarily patriotic holidays, Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Veterans' organizations such as the American Legion, AMVETS and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, often in partnership with scouting groups, serve as the country's conscience for proper care and display of Old Glory.
Many Americans don't realize the federal Flag Code comes with a set of "standards of respect" that specifies how the flag is not to be used. For example:
The flag should never touch the ground.
It should not be draped over an individual or platform.
It should not be embroidered, imprinted or otherwise used on anything for advertising purposes, such as cushions, napkins, boxes, etc.
Long Island goes through a lot of flags -- at homes, firehouses, schools, municipal buildings, hotels, car dealerships, etc. When it is time to retire an Old Glory, veterans' groups see to it that proper procedure is followed.
"Over the year we get hundreds of flags, and we're a small post," said Sidney L. Lynn, commander of VFW District 1 (Brooklyn, Queens, Nassau and Suffolk) and a member and past commander of VFW Post 400 in Farmingville. "I would say just in Suffolk County there are thousands."
No tattered flag should fly
Once a flag becomes tattered or torn, it should no longer be displayed, according to the Flag Code, which was adopted by Congress during World War II. Most veterans' posts and many fire stations have receptacles for old flags.
The American Legion formalized its Ceremony for Disposal of Unserviceable Flags in 1937. The 30-minute ceremony includes the Pledge of Allegiance, the national anthem and an invocation, followed by the disassembly of the flags.
The members of Post 155 stood at attention as Robert Shadler, an electrical engineer at Aeroflex Plainview who served in the Army from 1971 to 1974, soaked the flags with lighter fluid in a barrel and set them aflame.
Only a fraction of the old flags donated to veterans' groups are burned at public ceremonies. Most are cremated at Calverton National Cemetery in Calverton, veterans' group leaders said.
Several people at the Post 155 ceremony expressed concern that many Americans are unaware or unconcerned about the proper care and display of the Stars and Stripes. Mike Koslov of East Patchogue, a Postal Service retiree whose grandson was among the Scouts at the ceremony, said many people seem not to realize the flag should not be displayed overnight or left out in the rain.
"Stuff like that is one thing," said Koslov, 63. "But what makes me angry is seeing them thrown away like rags," he added, referring to car-window flags he sees along roadsides while cycling.
Within the Scout troops and packs, however, flag etiquette is emphasized.
"We were taught never to let it touch the ground, because that's disrespectful to our country," said Kristopher Kilkenny, 14, of Lake Ronkonkoma, a member of Scout Troop 272. His mother, Kerry Kilkenny, sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the ceremony.
Veterans' group members and Scout leaders agreed that scouting groups take the lead in teaching children about respect for the flag.
Scouts, Brownies and Daisies in Nassau County are receptive to the message, said Donna Rivera-Downey, chief of marketing and communications for the Girl Scouts of Nassau County. But many of the adults who volunteer to lead troops and packs have to brush up on their flag etiquette, she noted.
"I frequently get leaders who call me and say, 'I don't know how to do a flag ceremony,' " Downey-Rivera said. "They know there's a process, but they don't know what the process is. They don't want to give the girls the wrong information."
Fortunately, the agency has a library of instructional resources for the leaders to use, she said. Such is not the issue at Calverton, where officials are well versed in the ceremonial requirements. The national cemetery receives "hundreds and hundreds" of flags annually, and conducts disposal ceremonies once or twice a year, said assistant director Steve Callagy.
"We are required to obtain a burn permit from the Town of Riverhead after we determine a burn is necessary," he said. "Our director schedules a brief ceremony with the veteran organizations so we may provide a dignified flag retirement."
AMERICAN FLAG ETIQUETTE DO'S AND DON'TS
There are rules and regulations for display and treatment of the U.S. flag -- it's called the Flag Code and was adopted by Congress during World War II. While the Code empowers the president of the United States to alter, modify, repeal or prescribe additional rules regarding the flag, no federal agency has the authority to issue "official" rulings legally binding on civilians or civilian groups.
DON'T . . .
Dip the flag to any person or thing.
Fly it upside down except as a distress signal.
Display it on days when the weather is inclement, unless it's an all-weather flag.
Use it as a drapery on a person or platform, or for covering a speaker's desk or for any decoration, in general.
Use the flag for any advertising purpose or on anything intended to be discarded after temporary use.
Use the flag as part of a costume or athletic uniform. A flag patch may be used on the uniform of military personnel, firefighters, police officers and members of patriotic organizations.
Allow it to touch the ground or any other object when it is being lowered.
MAKE SURE . . .
The U.S. flag is always the first raised and the last lowered when it is flown with flags representing states, communities or societies. It should be raised and lowered simultaneously when displayed with the banners of other countries, and may not be displayed above the flags of other nations in times of peace.
No other flag is larger than the American flag or placed above it.
The flag is never used as a receptacle for receiving, holding, carrying or delivering anything.
It is received by waiting hands and arms when it is lowered.
To fold the flag neatly and ceremoniously before storing it.
To clean and mend the flag when necessary.
DID YOU KNOW?
As part of patriotic custom, the flag is flown at night in many places. But it is only authorized by law to fly 24 hours a day at all U.S. Customs ports of entry and seven other sites:
1. The White House
2. Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, Baltimore
3. Flag House Square, Albemarle and Pratt streets, Baltimore
4. United States Marine Corps Memorial (Iwo Jima), Arlington, Virginia
5. On the green of the town of Lexington, Massachusetts
6. Washington Monument, Washington, D.C. Fifty flags are displayed at the site continuously
7. Grounds of the National Memorial Arch in Valley Forge State Park, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania
PLUS . . .
Flags can be used to cover a coffin but should not be lowered into the grave.
On Memorial Day the flag is to be displayed at half staff until noon and at full staff from noon to sunset.
When carried in a procession, the flag should be to the right of the marchers.