VALLEY VIEW – Almost 40 years separate their ages, and service to their country as United States Marines, but 63-year-old Chuck Lewis and 24-year-old Tomy Parker still team up on occasion to teach kids about the American flag and flag etiquette.
On Tuesday, they found themselves doing so at a rural two-room school in farming and ranching country southwest of Polson, where many students already knew a thing or two about the subject.
That was evident as Trapper McAllister slowly lowered the Valley View School’s American flag, and Haylee Walchuk neatly folded it into a triangle in a cold wind and presented it to Lewis.
The flag had flown above the two-room schoolhouse long enough to tatter and fray, and McAllister had the honor of lowering it for the final time. With Walchuk’s help, he then raised a brand-new one as the rest of the students – the school has an enrollment of 24 – watched, their right hands held over their hearts.
“What’s cool is you’re one of the few schools left in the country that go out and raise the colors every morning, and retire them at the end of the day,” Lewis told them. “Nowadays most schools light the flag and let it fly all night.”
Which, one of the things the kids learned, is OK.
Of course, no one is being taught to fold or unfold a flag if it never comes down.
The permanent retirement of the old flag gave Valley View teachers Carol Madden, Wendy Lobdell and Sonja Bickel a perfect opening to invite Lewis and Parker to spend a couple of hours at the school.
Lewis will burn it, and other permanently retired flags, on Flag Day in June.
His talks with kids and others about military veterans and the flag is, almost literally, the least Lewis does. He’s been known to spend his holidays standing at attention in his dress blues in public places, asking celebrating Americans to remember the U.S. vets serving overseas, and those who didn’t make it home.
Last year, he spent six months walking from one end of America to the other – a hike of approximately 3,200 miles – to raise money, and awareness, for veterans’ causes. He wound up at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Parker also does work on behalf of veterans, and does so minus the two legs and four fingers he lost to an improvised explosive device in 2010 while serving in Afghanistan.
“How old do you think I am?” Parker asked the kindergarten- through sixth-grade students from his wheelchair.
“Forty!” came the first guess, followed by several numbers in the 30s, a 24 and a rather wild stab by one of the younger students of “90!”
“Close,” Parker told her. The 24 was correct, he told the Valley View students who otherwise over-guessed, adding, “The amount going to war ages you is incredible.”
Lewis began the program by teaching the kids to not just say, but shout – and shout with great enthusiasm – “Oorah!” which he told them means, in Marine-speak, that they agree with something.
He also played a YouTube clip from 1958 in which comedian Red Skelton explained the Pledge of Allegiance as his grade school principal had to him in 1910 – dissecting it one word at a time, to reinforce each word’s meaning.
Parker talked briefly about post-traumatic stress disorder. He told them there are veterans like himself whose wartime injuries are easy to identify, and others “you can’t see because they’re hurt in their mind.”
When Madden asked if there were projects the students at Valley View could work on to benefit military members, Parker said writing letters to active-duty troops does a lot for their morale.
“It’s cool if you’ve been out on patrol, and you come back and get to read letters from kids saying thank you,” he said.
Lewis’ slideshow explaining the proper care and display of the American flag included, toward the end, a couple of shots of people defacing and burning the flag in protest. U.S. veterans, he told the youngsters, fought to ensure Americans had the freedom to express themselves that way.
But Tuesday was about respecting the flag. Judging by the way McAllister and Walchuk handled their duties as classmates Malachi Warneke, Alexys Orien, Kayleigh Gilmore and Mason Sloan stood by, ready to keep it from accidentally touching the ground, those are lessons that started before Tuesday at Valley View School.