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Local Column

AKST: Flags, fingers and the Fourth of July

Not making this column about Independence Day would be like writing about Seattle without mentioning coffee. Thus, I humbly offer two topics associated with Independence Day: flag etiquette and my fingers.

Let’s start with my fingers. I still have them (thumbs, too) and they work. Perhaps you don’t realize the significance of this achievement, so let me elaborate.

Parents: You might be wise to censor this next part from young kids.

And just for the holiday, included with this advisory is a free sample of how my mind works. While writing that parental advisory line, in my head I heard Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings singing, “Mamas, don’t your babies grow up to be cowboys.” I have no idea why.

Anyway, here’s how we did fireworks when I was a kid.

Safe method of detonating standard firecrackers: Place on ground, light fuse with punk, quickly step several feet away.

Our method: My siblings and I were taught to hold firecrackers by our sides with our dominant hands, about waist level (imagine holding a Frisbee just before flinging it), and then lighting them. That way, you can hold them longer, fling them, and get a good trajectory so they explode in midair.

Now let’s talk about bottle rockets. Standard operating procedure is to place them in an empty bottle on the ground pointed away from everybody, then repeat steps regarding fireworks as described above.

Our method: Hold lit bottle rocket until the last second for much more flexibility in aiming. As teens, my friends and I realized we could use them as “missiles” that could be launched either at each other or out of beer soda bottles from cars.

Roman candles?

Same deal: Put them in the ground, light them, move away.

Our method: if you hold the cylinder in the middle about shoulder height, light the fuse, and gently wobble the Roman candle, the flaming colored balls would arc much higher and be prettier.

I’ll spare you the lurid details of modifying explosives to blow up cans, ant hill atrocities, etc.

Who taught us all this? Satan, you say?

No, it was Dad. I realize kids unfairly blame their parents for their mistakes, and generally, I had wonderful parenting, but I question Dad’s firework safety parenting.

Except, Dad was a nuclear physicist who specialized in detonation. His career was researching, designing and building explosives, and it’s no exaggeration to say he was one of the world’s foremost experts on blowing stuff up. Not surprisingly, Dad loved Independence Day, and the Fourth of July is the holiday I miss him most.

The takeaway, I guess, is to savor memories of loved ones any time.

Now let’s talk about flags. It’s customary and appropriate to fly one’s American flag on Independence Day, and other times, too, but there is a shocking level of flag etiquette ignorance out there.

There is much wrong with America, but treating our flags appropriately is something we should be able to get right. So, here are some flag etiquette reminders, courtesy of the Old Farmer’s Almanac.

Generally, the flag should:

• fly sunrise to sunset. Many people leave it out 24/7, which is wrong.

• not be flown in bad weather.

• always be the top- and centermost flag if other flags are flown.

• never touch anything beneath it (the ground, floor, water, or merchandise).

• never be used for advertising or costumes.

• be destroyed in a dignified way when worn out, tattered or dirty. Burning is the preferred method of destruction.

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. He also serves as a board member for the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association, You can reach him at or follow him on Twitter (@jasonakst).

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