It is flag season. Once again we celebrate Memorial Day, Flag Day and Fourth of July; and those who care about the symbol of our republic, our flag, raise questions about proper respect and protocols.

One of the most frequently-asked questions is about the meaning of “half mast” and the location of the flag on the mast or “pole” (Army) and why the term mast rather than pole.   

Some terms: Staff is usually a term for a short pole and is used indoors, pole (Army) is less reflective of the source of flag rules which are derived from naval wind-powered sailing ships. The security and safety of naval vessels was, and still is, dependent on the ability to quickly make evasive course changes. In the days of the tall ships, and a calm wind, where could the most wind be found? At the top of the tallest mast. But that valued location also carried the national ensign or flag. Every square inch of sail was vital for speed. Sometimes, another choice was made to carry the flag in a slackened or less than full mast manner. This was to communicate to other ships that a condition of mourning existed on board. This brief time of mourning is reflected in our contemporary tradition of raising our flag to full mast by noon on Memorial Day. Most U.S. flag rules and laws are are consistent with three terms: Respect, Dignity, Tradition.

For longer than our first century, our flag varied in shape and composition. Thirteen stripes, 15 stripes, more red stripes than white, more white stripes than red, four, six, or seven points to a star, a blue field that was one half or more than the stripes, circles of stars, crosses of stars, and circles of gold colored stars, and other variations until congress finally decided on a standard and an anniversary date for rule changes: June 14, Flag Day.

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