Flags of my Father, a New Daughter, and a Big, Burning Jesus

Flag Day has always represented a weird little holiday for me. As the son of a World War II veteran, my childhood was filled with images of my dad literally marching to the front of the house in the early morning hours of June 14th, cigarette dangling from his mouth, to hoist the American flag up on pole dangling from the side of our house. He’d pause for a moment, and then retire to the back deck, where, the night before, he had left an empty 2-liter soda bottle. Reaching behind one of my mother’s many potted plants, he would produce several old, waterlogged bottle rockets he’d bought from “Da Guy” (fireworks being illegal in New York). He’d jam a couple of the rockets into the 2-liter bottle, letting the fuse hang off the outside, and then use the tip of another freshly-lit cigarette to light them all at once.  The bottle rockets would all sputter and smoke as they hopped around in a pathetic attempt to escape the bottle. Most simply flopped onto the deck and burst into flames or else fizzled out. Once in a while, a lucky one would escape and fly into the bright morning sun, exploding in a cloudy grey mass. That was the extent of my dad’s Flag Day celebration. And every year, I would watch him, if only to hope that none of them escaped the bottle and instead caught the deck on fire. Those were the ones that seemed to make my dad the happiest.

As my father grew older, he stopped hanging his flag out. But he taught me to respect it. There were numerous occasions, funny now but not at the time, when my 80-year-old father was inches away from, in his words, “kick da s**t outta some horse’s a**” who had refused to stand up or take his hat off during the Star-Spangled Banner at sporting events. During those years, I’d have to say that it was hard for me to see an American flag anywhere and not smile. That was because those stars and stripes immediately conjured up images of my dad, fists raised old-school style like the Notre Dame leprechaun, challenging some disrespectful guy to a fight over Old Glory.

My dad, who golfed well into his 70s. Note his "USS Missouri" hat.

The flag took on a totally different meaning for me in the fall of 2008 when my father passed away. He had been ill for a while and being the proud (and stubborn) man that he was, refused help from any of his family, including me. In fact, during one emotional outburst, my father told me that the only thing he wanted me to do for him was to accept the flag the US Navy was going to drape over his coffin. And so, on a chilly November morning, I stood as tall and proud as I could alongside my father’s gravesite with my three sisters and accepted the flag from his coffin. The two officers who had folded the flag thanked me for my father’s service to his country, saluted me, and then announced to the congregation “a member of our United States Navy has just departed.” That’s when I broke down. It was, after all, November 11th—Veterans Day. The flag returned home with me to Ohio, where the following June 14th I would look at it hanging on the wall, and cry.

My father's flag and medals

All that changed on June 14th, 2010. That was the day my daughter, Courtney Leigh Willis, came into the world. Of course, she wasn’t supposed to be born on the 14th. Stephanie and I had gone to the hospital on the morning of the 13th for Steph to be induced. But then again, nothing my wife and I do is ever done the “normal” way, so why should the birth of our first child be any different? And so, after a long and sometimes frightening ordeal, in the wee hours of June 14th, the nurse in the operating room handed me my daughter and for the fist time ever, I looked into her bright blue eyes—my father’s eyes.

Courtney at 9 months

Several hours later, Steph and I were in our hospital room and I began to text my family and friends to let them know the great news. That was when I heard about the fiery demise of the Big Butter Jesus.

For the uninitiated, the statue known as the Big Butter Jesus sat only I-75 outside of Cincinnati for many years. I had first covered it for my 2005 book, Weird Ohio, and since then, I always had a soft spot in my heart for it. It was just so absurd and, well, weird! But as fate would have it, June 14thwould also be the day that a stray lightning bolt would whack the Big Butter Jesus in all his creamy goodness, burning it to the ground and sending burnt pieces of fiberglass into the nearby pond.

Big Butter Jesus, before the lightning strike...

...and after

If I hadn’t yet realized that I had a rabid (and somewhat eclectic) fan base, Flag Day 2010 wasn’t even half-over before I found out just how crazy it was! For as word spread about the birth of my daughter, so did the fact that the Big Butter Jesus had been struck by lightning…on the same day! And leave it to my fan base to start wondering if perhaps the two events, when combined, could be taken as some weird sign of the apocalypse! That still makes me smile.

But there was still more to come! When it comes to Steph’s parents, Steve and Carol, while they have never been anything but loving and kind towards me, I’ve always wondered if they thought perhaps I was missing a few screws. Sure, they would laugh at my jokes or listen to my stories, but I couldn’t help but wonder if they sometimes, while on their long trips back home to Oxford, Ohio, would ask each other “what’s wrong with that guy?”

As Courtney was Steve and Carol’s first grandchild, they had stayed the entire night at the hospital with us, heading back down to Oxford on the morning of the 14th. They returned early the next morning, but not before making a little detour. Steve and Carol were both giggling when they handed me what appeared to be an empty cardboard Diet Coke 12-pack. It wasn’t empty, though. Inside were several charred pieces of the Big Butter Jesus. That’s right, my in-laws think so much of me and my weird ways that they fished pieces of burnt fiberglass out of a pond for me!  If that’s not true love, I don’t know what is.

The charred remains of Big Butter Jesus

As I sit here writing this on the eve of yet another Flag Day, I’m amazed at how much of an impact a somewhat minor holiday has had on me over the years. Over time, it has come to represent a lot of different things for me. Tonight, after having kissed Courtney goodnight and typing in the shadow of my father’s flag and the burned pieces of the Big Butter Jesus, I realize what Flag Day represents to me now. It means “family.”

Happy Flag Day!

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