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Folding a Flag

By Frank Gruber

I thought to myself, "How long does it take to fold a flag?"

Outside St. Monica's Church, after the funeral service for Ricardo Crocker, USMC, SMPD, three Santa Monica police officers and three U.S. marines were folding the flag that had draped his casket. Last week, during the marine reservist's second tour of duty in Iraq, an insurgent killed him with a rocket-propelled grenade.

Two people folding a tablecloth -- how long does it take? Thirty seconds?

Six men folding a flag -- how long does it take?

They began like a dance, a stately dance. A silent minuet: three men on each side; approaching each other; matching the corners. They folded the flag in fourths, lengthwise.

It was too bad I would never meet "Rick" (as everyone called Major Crocker.) I thought back to the church service, which I had watched on TV in the overflow room. Everyone spoke of Rick's charisma.

The eulogists -- Lieutenant Colonel William Costantini, one of Major Crocker's commanding officers in Iraq, and Police Chief James Butts -- seemed to go out of their way to back up their claims with specific facts, to make sure everyone knew they weren't just making nice.

Colonel Costantini told the nearly 1,000 people who gathered to mourn Major Crocker that of the 1,300 marines in his unit trying to secure an area of western Iraq the size of West Virginia, the six members of Major Crocker's civil affairs squad did the most important work, building hospitals, schools, talking to local leaders.

Chief Butts said, among other things, that Officer Crocker was one of the two most highly qualified recruits in the police department's history. He told us that Officer Crocker's special love was the Police Athletics League, and that his most recent accomplishment there was to institute an SAT prep center.

My mind returned to the moment. Four members of the honor guard had stepped away. Only two, one marine, one police officer, held the flag. They stretched it between them. Nervous, their hands shook. The police officer started folding from one end. He folded over about an inch. He creased it. He made a fold on the diagonal. He creased it. He folded it again.

This was the second Catholic funeral mass I had attended in recent months. The other was the one for the two young men shot and killed at the Moose Lodge back in March. I can't remember any other funeral masses I've been to, and I'm starting to associate them with violent deaths and communal grief.

I almost wrote, "violent, senseless deaths." Inside the church, Monsignor Lloyd Torgerson had given the homily. He had asked a question that was on my mind -- had Ricardo Crocker died in vain?

Msgr. Torgerson said no. He said that Rick had not died (nor lived) in vain, because his life was an example to us.

I can understand that. We've lost Officer Crocker, but we can remember him and try to live better. "Rick is here," Msgr. Torgerson said, "he rejoices with us today." I don't pretend to know anything about Christian theology, but I can understand that his memory, at least, in us, will rejoice if PAL kids take the SAT prep and go to college.

Still, I'd forego my own moral improvement to have Officer Crocker available to run the program himself.

I didn't count how many diagonal folds it takes to bundle up a flag, but the police officer stopped to crease each one.

Msgr. Torgerson quoted Saint Augustine to the effect that if you're on the wrong road, don't speed up; stop; look within yourself, to see if your life is worthy.

We're on a road in Iraq. Perhaps not the kind Msgr. Torgerson referred to, but I'll borrow the metaphor.

This Iraqi road is a limited access road, with few off-ramps. Not well lit; it's dark even in the bright sun. The right road or the wrong road, no one knows. Someone misplaced the directions, and it seems we took a detour from a different road -- no one can quite remember why -- to get on this road in the first place.

Now the traffic is simultaneously congested and moving at unsafe speeds. If we slow down we might be rear-ended; if we speed up -- well, the engine is straining. It's hot and if we give it more gas we might throw a rod.

The young marine tucked the last end of the flag under a fold. He saluted the flag. The police officer handed the flag back to the marine. He saluted it. The marine took the flag to a marine colonel; he saluted it. The colonel handed the flag to Ricardo Crocker's mother.

She held it on her lap.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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