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LET'S STOP TRIVIALIZING OUR COUNTRY'S PURPOSE

The other day, a co-worker came into the office wearing a pair of shoes that had a red, white and blue pattern of flags within the leather. A closer look showed the pattern was not a replica of the U.S. flag, but it was very close, more an indicator of the flag.

The shoe's symbolic flags presented "star" fields that did not contain 50 stars, nor did the red and white stripes contain Old Glory's 13 rows. But no mistaken impression was possible, the intent was to evoke the image of our country's flag.

Our social environment has become visual. We are confronted with advertising on almost every conceivable surface, increasingly in red, white and blue. So goes today's continuing commercialization and trivialization of our country's purpose and opportunity. Reactions to the assault of Sept. 11, 2001, by religious fanatics continue in the best (or worst) traditions of the circus.

I went to a Catholic grammar school during World War II. As in most of the Catholic schools, the discipline was fairly regimented. Every day, at the end of classes, we exited our rooms and the building to recorded music. It was always John Philip Sousa. As far as I can remember, I was always marching to "Stars and Stripes Forever."

There was a major global war in progress and there were signs of patriotism everywhere. The nuns assured us -- bright-eyed, early grade students that we were -- that our country was on the side of right, God was at our side and that we would win the war against the Nazis and against the Empire of Japan.

J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI agents told us to keep a sharp eye out for enemy spies. So, in spite of our ages and comprehension, we did. They could be anywhere.

We prayed to God to keep our soldiers safe. After all, many of them were family members or members of our friends' families. We played "war" by acting out scenarios with makeshift forts in back yards or open lots. Other times we used play soldiers or airplanes made of paper cutouts or cardboard. Metal was a war material and scarce. Plastic was unknown.

One day, on the way to school, all of the church bells were ringing. It was V-E Day, Germany had surrendered. After arriving at school and attending Mass, we were given the day off. Japan's surrender I remember differently. It happened during summer break, so there was no school holiday. But I do remember President Harry Truman's radio speech that announced we had dropped something called the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

What I do not remember is the surfeit of cartoon patriotism that we have today. Perhaps computerized graphics have allowed every breathing person to express himself in red, white and blue. Little skill is required. No knowledge of flag etiquette is expected. No respect is expected or given.

I was very young then, so perhaps my memories are selective. I just wonder what tomorrow's memories of today will be. I wonder what impact our potential for living longer will have on our memories. Will a longer life span and today's rapidly changing technologies overwhelm our abilities to remember our country's purpose and our individual personal responsibilities to that purpose?

While I wonder about these things, I will continue to keep a sharp eye out for the enemy. Let us hope that tomorrow's generations are being taught to keep a sharp eye.

JOHN S. BIS is associate dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at the University at Buffalo.
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