The flag in the trunk

The purple majesty of Mt. Diablo at sunrise. Viewed from Marsh Creek Reservoir.

What does the American flag stand for? Our anthem hints it might stand for freedom and bravery. Another anthem praises the landscapes we love: amber grain and purple mountains. My suggestion: throw in hope and courage. 

Five years before I was born, Pfc. Victor Erickson sailed the Atlantic to join Gen. Mark Clark’s 5th Army in Italy. His mission: to assist in the eviction of Italy’s German occupants.

Dad’s preparation for war included the ancient art and science of marching in formation. As a method of armed assault it had gone the way of the trebuchet. But as a method of flying the colors down a city street to get the patriotic juices flowing, it had proven second to none. Recalling his feelings as he crisscrossed Aberdeen Proving Ground’s parade field, stars and stripes streaming in the breeze to the robust rhythms of John Philip Sousa, Dad said, “I was so proud, I thought the buttons on my uniform would pop off and kill the guy in front of me.”

Victor had crossed the Atlantic twice before. Born in Wisconsin to Norwegian immigrants who had earned their American citizenship, he sailed to Norway in 1934 to rejoin his family, which had returned to Trondheim, the nation’s third most populous city. He crossed the Atlantic for the second time in the spring of 1940, on the last ship to flee before the German invasion on April 9, Victor’s 21st birthday. His parents, Bjarne and Ruth, and sister, Lillian, remained in occupied Norway. Victor joined the U.S. Army; his brother, Bernard, the U.S. Navy.

Flags exert mysterious power. In the spring of 1940, as the Nazi red, white and black was hoisted up flagpoles across the Land of the Midnight Sun, in Trondheim the Ericksons buried a flag at the bottom of a trunk in a storage room. No one would have blamed them for burning that banner for safety’s sake, especially after Dec. 7, 1941, when Germany – Japan’s ally – declared war on the United States. The flag they hid bore 13 stripes and 48 stars.

When Bjarne died in a traffic accident in August of 1941, Ruth and Lillian were left to their own survival schemes. The Gestapo knew they were American citizens, and never took its eye off them. What the Gestapo didn’t know: they were mother and sister to members of the U.S. armed forces. For five years they lived under a pall as pervasive as darkness in Nordic winter.

May, 1945: U.S. paratroopers march the Ericksons’ 48-star flag down a street in Trondheim, Norway following the city’s liberation from German occupation.

The spring of 1945 was filled with the scent of liberation in Europe ­– and the scent of an ember smoldering at the bottom of a trunk in Trondheim. When the city was liberated on May 9 and American paratroopers dropped by, it was clear that a parade was in order. After a five-year exile, the Norwegian flag would once again flow down Kongens Gate, Trondheim’s main thoroughfare – accompanied, of course, by the American flag … if the Americans had only remembered to bring one.

Word was put out that an American flag was needed, and Ruth and Lillian knew exactly where to dig one up. Old Glory, for five years hidden ingloriously in the dark, at last saw the light of day amid shouts and laughter and tears on the streets of Trondheim.

It’s said that the flag is a mere symbol of something greater. Yes, like the mere courage and mere hope of Ruth, Lillian and Bjarne. Tomorrow the stars and stripes will stream in the vanguard of parades across the 50 states of the Union. Some friendly advice: don’t stand in front of me on the curb. I wouldn’t want my buttons to pop off and kill you.