A neighbor of the parents of Fire Capt. David Rosa handed this letter to them after hearing the news of their 45-year old son’s death. It was read at his funeral.
America at Half Staff
by Eric Brewster
Every morning growing up I would wake to the sight of my next-door neighbor standing at a flagpole in the middle of their lawn hoisting an American flag. Their house sits on the corner of an intersection that marked our neighborhood’s transition from urban sprawl to American dream-land. Fresh-coated homes, watered front lawns, porches for reading and palm trees for shade–it was a postcard-perfect suburbia. We locked our doors, stayed out of the streets and walked our dogs on leashes. But if you lived here, you had made it. You never felt something short of safe.
I was too young to understand it but we lived in that privileged end-state of American abstraction free to dwell on fears of our own choosing, spiritual instead of physical, emotional instead of existential. Tomorrow instead of today. Life was never perfect but the imperfections were always enough.
When most of us try to imagine the quintessential American it is usually my neighbors that we are envisioning. They smile at strangers; they host the occasional church group. They have a pool were their family gathers and their grandchildren play. They keep a garden and tend it daily. Their lawn is a silent symphony of color, flowers I could always feel but never name. They are godly, goodly, and gracious. It is foolish to pretend that anyone can be distilled to a single word but ‘gentle’ has been the one that always comes to mind.
And every morning, like clockwork, they walk out to their flagpole and raise their American flag. I’ve always been enchanted by this flagpole. On the one hand, in the obvious sense, it’s an all-American salute from an all-American family, an unvarnished display of patriotism as simple as it is absolute. But it has also felt like an aberration, a relic from another time, if not entirely out of place. How many of your neighbors have gone to the trouble of installing a flagpole in the middle of their lawn—not a flag stick, not a holder, not a pennant strapped to the back of a sedan—the sort of display you’d expect to find outside a judicial office or the DMV, as proper and permanent as they come.
Our neighborhood is full of proud Americans of all colors and stripes but on this count I know of only one. Like many people grappling with our country’s problems today I have been unable to escape the feeling of a loss of innocence. We’ve been both hardened by hard realities and weakened by weak resolve. As our discourse has devolved beyond logic and the tragedies have compounded too quickly to count, my neighbor’s simple, daily gesture has never felt so quaint.
As I grew older and moved out of town for school, work, love, I would regard their flagpole with almost a bewildered affection each time I returned home. In an age when our symbols of unity are diminished to props designed to divide, the idea of my neighbors rising each morning to raise their flag has been a bedrock of a small and sacred comfort, of a curious ritual through which I too could inhale.
We—this—will endure. They radiate love and safety. They don’t just fly our flag; they embody the reasons it deserves to be flown. I know nothing of their political persuasions, their positions on this policy or that. I know only it is a beautiful thing to see them hoist their flag high.
Their son is a firefighter. On Monday, at four in the morning, he answered the call for a local blaze. When he arrived on the scene as the first responder he was shot by the man who had started it. He was there to do his job, keep us safe so we could freely go about ours. He ran in with a hose and was greeted by a bullet, killed in the line of duty not by a burning building but by a shooter waiting inside one. His life’s work is one of the last bastions of what is best about our country, that ancient spirit of unconditional support. He did not hesitate. He did not seek out caveats or loopholes or excuses. He died the living definition of a hero. There was a fire and he ran into the flames.
If there is a reason to abide in hope for America today, it is not because there are ordinary people like him among us—that has always been true of our country, as we would not have a country without them. And yet clearly they alone are never enough. If anything, it must be because we can live, we can all live, like they do–day by day and person by person faithfully playing our self-determined parts.
Today there are fires all around us. We can avert our eyes, plug our noses, drown out the sirens’ roar—but in the end we all fall victim together. We all inhale the smoke. It hardly takes a villain to let the fans be fanned—heroes dare to put them out.
This week for the first time I can remember in my short and lucky life, my neighbor’s flag is flying at half staff. It is surreal to know why it hangs there halfway down the pole. If you are driving through town and happened upon it you would probably assume that some distant faceless public official had passed away of old age.
There are vigils elsewhere around town—flowers bunched at the station, banners draped from the overpass. Signs scrawled in trembling Sharpie, doing what little good they can. But here, at this corner of America, where people greet you with a smile and flowers are always in bloom, there is only what has been there all along—a spangled piece of colored cloth hanging from a metal pole that never seems to rust.
My neighbors are also heroes. They will raise it tomorrow, too.