Honoring the colors

Sheldon Riley, 31, Columbia

Rising to the podium Sunday at the Summerville Elks Lodge, Jim Gelis could survey the room and see likenesses of the U.S. flag everywhere: on a Navy veteran's flag-inspired shirt, on his own necktie, and in miniature in the hands of the assembled Elks.

"Esteemed Loyal Knight, what is the significance of the American flag?" said Gelis, who holds the position of Exalted Ruler at the lodge.

The lodge's Flag Day ceremony, held a day before the nationwide observance, was in part an answer to that question. The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, a fraternal order dating back to the 19th century, claims some credit for popularizing Flag Day.

In 1911, the Elks' governing body made it mandatory for all lodges to observe June 14 as the anniversary of the country's adoption of its first 13-star flag. It wasn't until 1949 that then-President Harry Truman, himself an Elk, signed an act of Congress establishing a national Flag Day.

"When they formed the order, they decided to go with the elk as a symbol because it was distinctly American," Gelis said before the ceremony Sunday. "We're intensely patriotic."

The events Sunday included a procession of 10 different flags by young Summerville Police cadets. They ranged from the English St. George's Cross, which flew over the now-lost Roanoke colony, to the well-known "Don't Tread On Me" rattlesnake flag designed by Charleston native Christopher Gadsden during the Revolutionary War, to the modern-day flag.

Chris Meyers, a member of the Summerville lodge, stood in the back of the room with her 12-year-old son Robert, and both fought back tears as Leading Knight Jane LaQua read a history of the nation's victories and losses at the lectern.

"I want to make sure that all my children understand the importance of America and why they're free," Meyers said. "People say it has to be handed down from generation to generation, and I see those cadets, and they're just babies."

After the ceremony, Cadet 1st Class Cera Webb, 15, recited the meanings of the colors as she had learned them in ROTC: red for hardiness and valor, white for purity and innocence, blue for... she couldn't remember. She had an idea about the flag, though.

"To me, it feels like it's this symbol for us," Webb said. "For Americans."

What does the American flag mean to you?

'To me, the flag is a symbol of our freedom: freedom of thought, freedom of ideals, freedom of religion, and I think we've had so many people pay for it, so many of our veterans, and they're not appreciated like they should be coming back.'

— William Davies, 71, Hanahan

'To me, the American flag means honor and integrity. My husband is in the United States Navy fighting and defending our country, so I may take it a little more heartfelt than most people.'

— Melissa Benta, 34, Beaufort

'I guess it just means America and freedom and the fact that we're able to go out every day and do whatever we want instead of having to live like some countries, all restricted.'

— Alex Richardson, 17, Savannah, Ga.

'It symbolizes the blood and the sweat of our forefathers, and independence and freedom.'

— Sheldon Riley, 31, Columbia

'When I think of the American flag, I think of it as a symbol of strength and unity. It kind of says to keep living the dream.'

— Katie Iannace, 19, Summerville

'I guess the American flag ultimately represents the freedom and the struggle that everyone who is here has accomplished throughout their lives, the people who were here long before us. Freedom of religion, freedom of thought, freedom of idea, just freedom in general. I think that's why everybody ended up here, and I think that ultimately what the flag represents is freedom for all.'

— Deanna Bowdish, 34, Beaufort

Flag rules

The American flag has its own set of rules, outlined in Title 4 of the U.S. Code. Here are some ways to honor the flag:

• Unless the flag is lit at night, only fly it from sunrise to sunset.

• Never fly another flag above the U.S. flag. When the U.S. flag is displayed with multiple other flags, it should be at the center and the highest point.

• Never allow the flag to touch the ground, the floor, water or merchandise.

• When hanging the flag on a wall, make sure the union (the blue part) is at the upper-left corner from the observer's perspective.

• Hoist the flag briskly up the flagpole; lower it ceremoniously.

• When displaying the flag on a car, either attach the pole to the chassis or clamp it to the right side of the fender.

• The U.S. Code does not specify a method for disposing of old flags, but it says that they "should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning."

Did you know?

• An upside-down U.S. flag is a symbol of extreme distress or danger.

• The president, governors and the mayor of Washington, D.C., can order the flag to be flown at half-staff.

• Every polling place is required to display the flag on election days.

• Every school is required to display the flag.

SOURCE: U.S. Code Title 4, Chapter 1