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Flag flap: Is it OK to bike across the painted Stars and Stripes?

  • 19 July, 2014
  • Kyle Munson


Rock Valley, Ia. — Here’s why RAGBRAI bicyclists won’t roll across 24 depictions of the Stars and Stripes painted on the highway as they roll out of town Sunday morning between and beneath an avenue of actual, flapping flags: A minor debate erupted here over what qualifies as honoring versus desecrating the United States flag.

Herbert Rankin of Des Moines was the first to warn me, although I didn’t think much of it at the time. He left me a phone message to complain about the painted flags in Rock Valley after he saw a photo of them that ran in my column earlier this month about the town’s resolve to bounce back from its recent flooding and keep its pledge to launch RAGBRAI. Mayor Kevin Van Otterloo was pictured standing in the middle of the newly red, white and blue stretch of highway. I was there at the time. I didn’t think twice about it — except that it was yet one more example of the town’s dedication as a worthy host.

But then before I could return Rankin’s call, he left a second message to update me: Fellow veterans in Rock Valley apparently agreed with him. All the flags had been repainted because of the outcry.

That got my attention. Rankin was still worked up about the issue when I phoned him.

“That man is standing on the American flag!” said Rankin, 88, who fought in World War II.

“I’m probably a little fuddy-dud in your book,” he said.

Not at all, I assured him. My father, who served in Vietnam, taught me to respect the flag — never let it touch the soil, treat it with care, dispose of it properly, etc.

Rankin was an infantryman who stood “in snow up to my you-know-what” when he hit Europe at the end of the Battle of the Bulge, where he suffered shrapnel wounds.

“It disturbs me to no end the way people don’t respect the flag,” he said.

But in this case, I said, we’re talking about a representation of the flag intended to salute veterans and provide a patriotic send-off — with an honor guard standing at attention for two solid hours, from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. Sunday, as bicyclists roll past. The painters and Rankin share the same sentiments.

(Not to mention that the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld that the opposite sentiment, the burning of actual flags in protest, is protected free speech.)

Rankin did say he was proud how Mayor Van Otterloo handled the flap and even returned his phone call.

Here’s how the repainted highway looked today, with the blue field and stars repainted to create more innocuous, solid blocks of red and white stripes:



“We had a couple of local veterans that were quite upset, saying that we were disgracing the flag,” Van Otterloo said.

The backlash shocked him, too. He had directed traffic the entire time that dozens of his fellow townsfolk convened on the highway to paint the roadway.

One of the painters was a mother who has two sons in the military.

Not to mention that there will be so many and such massive flags flying overhead Sunday morning that few bicyclists might even noticed what is painted on the road below.

Ken VerBurg, one of the local veterans who objected to the flags, is quartermaster of Rock Valley’s VFW post and served in the Army during the Korean War.

“The fact that our flag was being walked on or rolled over — that was the issue,” VerBurg said.

He admitted that it’s “a very, very gray issue whether it’s right or wrong” and that the underlying “idea was great,” not done out of malice.

But he and other local vets weren’t going to stand there as bikes rolled over painted flags.

I have to admit that I’m flummoxed by this one. While I always follow my dad’s lead with the actual Stars and Stripes that I run up a pole, I would have biked across 24 painted flags Sunday morning thinking that Rock Valley was full of patriots — not protesters.



  1. Bo Kruse

    Allot of my family have served in the military, I personally want to thank those who took the initiative and hard work to make that a Glorious day. You were honoring the many who have fought and fallen for this country and showing how much you care for our troops and how proud we are to me AMERICANS, well thats what I got out of it… GOD BLESS YOU

  2. DGudy87

    It think the more appropriate Response to this issue is to address what is more important? Is it more important to respect the people that died and were wounded carrying this flag into battle or is it more important to respect the riders that will ride over this flag on the road it was painted on? In case the history eludes the writer, as he touts his respect of never letting the flag touch the ground, these military men carried this banner into battle (under the order of the POTUS and Congress) and were told to never let it retreat or fall to the ground, if it did another person was to immediately take it from the fallen comrade and carry it to show that it still WAVES! Although good intentions were done, it still doesn’t excuse the absent minded repercussions.

  3. K A

    I can’t imagine why the local VFW wasn’t asked for input initially. Whether it is right or wrong doesn’t matter if a veteran was offended that is reason enough to apologize.

  4. Chad Hinz

    Apologies are fine; let us not forget the blood shed was for expressing our freedom; fly them high , low…. I’d rather see them on a highway than burned! 22yrs service here!

  5. Randy Haugen

    Its not a flag,its a painted road idiots.

    Its to bad a few people get upset over such a trivial matter…Ride on!

  6. Jim Rothwell

    My father was a Marine aviator who served in Viet Nam and gave his life for our country. I consider myself to be very patriotic. This was just an awesome town of Iowans showing their National Pride to the country. I can only imagine how hot it was painting these great images of Old Glory on this stretch of highway for all the riders to pass over and be reminded of just how lucky we are to be Blessed to live in such a great country. Well done Rock Valley. You did Iowa proud!

  7. Dug

    It’s a piece of cloth people. Actually it’s a painted representation of a piece of cloth. Do you really have nothing better to do than complain about trivial stuff? Get a hobby or something.

  8. Sandy

    At first, I thought it shouldn’t matter because in my opinion, it wasn’t really a flag. To me the American Flag was/is an actual cloth flag. Not just any piece of cloth as some have stated, but a very important piece of cloth, just as the Bible is not just a book. I agreed that the town’s intent was to be patriotic and respectful, and I wouldn’t have thought anything of it until I read the US History link Grant provided. My dad was in the Air Force and a vetran of Korea and Vietnam, and I did not know the flag code. If I understand it correctly, any form of the American Flag should be treated and used respectfully, and that means walking on it, even a painted version, should not be done. However, most of us don’t know this code, so rather than getting upset and thinking people are not patriotic or respectful of our vetrans, perhaps the flag code could be made public so that we all understand how to use it.

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