Eight years ago, Charles Taliaferro found a tattered U.S. flag someone had ditched in a Dumpster near his California home.
He didn’t like it one bit.
“I got to thinking,” said the Vietnam veteran. The result of those thoughts: The proper disposal of U.S. flags would be yet another service he and his band of poker brothers would take on.
“That’s another thing that just snowballed,” the 66-year-old vet, who served in the Army for a year and a day, said of numerous projects he and about 15 poker buddies have realized over the past 15 years.
In 1990, the self-described “ragtag bunch of military types” met weekly around Taliaferro’s kitchen table for penny-ante poker games. They liked an idea posed by player Johnny Choate, Taliaferro’s fishing pal: part of their winnings should go to help hospitalized and homeless veterans.
Today, they make up the Kitchen Table Gang, and they and other volunteers send care packages, letters, phone cards and the like to veterans at VA centers and military hospitals, and to troops serving around the world, particularly combat zones, Taliaferro said.
And every June 14 — Flag Day — they host a ceremony to dispose of flags.
So far in the first three months of 2005, the Kitchen Table Gang has received 1,508 flags from people all over the country asking that they be disposed of properly. On Thursday, Taliaferro and his wife counted 4,091 flags stored in their Madera, Calif., garage awaiting this June’s ceremony.
“I know the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars also do this, but for whatever reason, people are coming to us too,” Taliaferro said. “With this many flags, [it] shows there is a need.”
Information about where to send flags or tips on sending care packages is posted on his Web site: kitchentablegang.org.
With America at war, thousands of groups like the Kitchen Table Gang have sprouted across the country with goals of making life better for deployed troops, said Joe Davis, a spokesman for the VFW, which represents 2.4 million members at 9,000 posts in the United States, Europe the Pacific and Latin America.
“Three decades ago, America turned its back on an entire generation of soldiers because Americans couldn’t disassociate the war from the warrior,” Davis said. “That attitude changed noticeably with the first Gulf War, when a collective America seemed to vow ‘never again.’
“[Today], dozens of small nonprofits have since been created with one focus in mind: to support the troops.”
The VFW, American Legion and Boy Scouts are among groups collecting unserviceable flags and holding ceremonies to properly dispose of them.
Which means burning them.
“The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning,” reads the sole mention in the Federal Flag Code of how to dispose of the flag.
There is no prescribed ceremony. No set words that must be uttered. No one way of folding, said Mike Buss, the flag educational expert for the American Legion.
Nor is there any legal definition of when a flag is no longer a fitting emblem, he said. Or that flags cannot be be washed, dry-cleaned or sewn, for example. However, an executive order signed in 1959 by President Eisenhower spells out, among other things, a flag’s exact proportions, Buss cautioned.
“The problem some people have is that along the edge, it sometimes frays, and people would cut the edge and re-hem it, and then it is not proportionally correct,” he said.
“If it looks bad, bottom line, it’s time for a new flag,” Buss said. And time to dispose of the old one properly.