Standing at its base, the tall, grey structure can be intimidating; its 150 feet towering over this most representative of squares. The most respected, or at least the most photographed, flagstaff in the nation.
Mario had been here every morning, at the break of dawn, for the last six months. His mission: caring for that immense pole and the banner it held. He often wondered if raising that huge, three-colored cloth on that tall pole held any significant meaning, marking some personal or national transcendence. This was one of those days when he could not but answer that question negatively. Who cared if he and his 11 fellow soldiers were there, exerting military punctuality and precision, if not might, to make sure the colors and the eagle would once again fly over this most sacred of national spaces? Who assigned any significance to their daily, quiet but apparently meaningless flag-raising chores?
Sure, there were the times – he had already experienced a few — when the powerful politicians, those who dictate the destinies of all, would show up. With sleepy and discontented faces, wrapped in their endless hunger for attention and laud, they would push the red button at the base of the flagstaff for the enormous banner to rise - mechanically and drowsily - to the heights that they themselves could never acquire.
Mario remembered the time when he saw the President himself – his small stature and large entourage — presiding over the proceedings. It was on a 19 of September, at exactly 0719 Zulu; the day and time when the vengeful earthquake had hit some 30 years ago. Thousands died, thousands were never seen again, thousands still vividly remembered the gore and tore of the day and of the week and of the months that followed. Destruction, debris, human remains, desperation and confusion everywhere. A government unable to stop the governed from offering the assistance it wouldn’t or couldn’t provide. September 19, a day of tragedy that fully justified a half-staff raising of the national flag by the highest authority in the land. The commander in chief was there himself and his holy finger would press the sacred button.
But something was wrong on that very morning. As if commanded by some evil, higher, mighty power the mechanism refused to engage. No electric motor running, no well-lubricated chains harmoniously marching, no green light confirming everything was in order and, certainly, no ceremonious rising of that most-respected national symbol. The top brass in attendance started sweating unanimously, notoriously and abundantly. Their stares burned through their desperate underlings like lasers from a weapon more powerful than any their armed forced, or for that matter those of any other nation, possessed. “What is wrong?” they demanded in steamy angry breaths. “Correct it!” they ordered. After fifteen seconds of disarming panic and unforgiving inaction, the gods of the nation intervened and the flag-raising process continued smoothly, undeterred. The nation would survive, the deceased would be honored; and, most importantly, the generals’ careers would be spared.
Today was different, this was a very windy day. The sky over the capital was uncharacteristically blue. The accumulated foul air that he had taken in only yesterday was now gone. Mario understood that the clear skies were won at a price. The strong winds lifted dust, played in circles with street litter and made it a challenge to keep the day’s hairdo in place.
He knew of no special preparations for raising this enormous flag on days this windy. The other soldiers he performed this task with were all older than him; no doubt they would know what to do if something went amiss. “How hard could it be anyway”, he thought, “to perform their duty aided by the not-always-reliable but surely powerful engine inside the flagstaff?”
Out they marched through the Marian Door, the entrance on the left of the National Palace. The one, in fact, that had recently been partly burned by protesting teachers, all suddenly forgetting their Catholic upbringings. The sun had shyly appeared over the Cathedral, its light marking the shadows of her two imposing towers on the square’s floor. That big church had stiff competition: it bore a tiny flag on its flagstaff, at least compared to the one Mario’s group was bearing, and it wasn’t even the holiest Catholic site in the city, that title belonged to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Mario cared little for either.
As expected, reaching the pole’s base with the flag on their shoulders was easy. The twelve men now stood in line perpendicular to the pole in their accustomed disciplined, orderly and honorable fashion. But their eyes betrayed a precise consciousness that something was different this morning. These 60-mile-per-hour winds had never before invited themselves to the daily ceremony. The presiding military force could sense that dealing with a confused President, an unresponsive crane and some furious generals would prove easier to handle than this crazy air blowing every which way.
As their silent preoccupation had foretold, once the red button was pushed, at 0700 Zulu, and the pole’s engine began pulling the flag’s green side on its accustomed ascending direction, the banner took a life of its own. Its immense eagle, strong colors, glorious history and colossal size would not be easily mastered by a mere dozen soldiers. Their twelve pairs of arms and legs were now evidently insufficient to keep the cloth from waving uncontrollably, dangerously approaching the ground beneath. Mario and his partners had no higher duty today than preventing the three colors from hitting the ground. They could conceive no graver sin than witnessing the green, white or red stamping the filthy floor underneath! Francisco suddenly and desperately called out for someone to bring in reinforcements. “Reinforcements?” Mario laughed. “From where?” “Those Special Forces elements, proudly wearing their red berets, would never consider assisting them in this lowliest of tasks,” he concluded. His thoughts faltered at the violent pull of the banner. “What to do now?” he wondered.
As usual, only a few people were around the square at that early time. Some office workers looked in astonishment as the soldiers fought the wind, sinking their gloved hands in the flag as the rest of their bodies flew in the air. It was clear they were overpowered, like so many of their forebears facing foreign armies. Turns out one person’s initiative is all that is needed to prompt an unexpected communal effort. One of these pedestrians, a fit young man, clad in full tie and suit, left his briefcase on the floor and ran decidedly, with full determination, to help his fellow flag guardians. Determined, he stood by the nearest soldier, held on to his elbow decisively and strongly. Several other people, upon witnessing his heroic initiative, decided to lend their hands as well. Backpacks, handbags, and briefcases were left on the sidewalks and on the square itself as their owners joined the young volunteer and the twelve struggling soldiers. Upon reaching the sacred national symbol, they would look at a soldier in the eye and intuitively join their arms, hands, shoulders and elbows with them to hold the pennant afloat, away from the floor.
Miraculously and unexpectedly, the flag suddenly straightened itself. As new pairs of hands held it gently but strongly in place, the respected banner seemed to decide that the citizens’ involvement demanded that it rise honorably, desisting of its stubborn resistance. And so it did. The wind was thus defeated.
What had just happened? Mario wondered. He was astonished. He had never witnessed such collaboration with civilians, neither raising the national flag nor performing any of his other soldiery tasks. He was astonished, and grateful; and proud. He was certain ordinary people hated them; he could not believe they would come to their assistance, on any task. Maybe we could all work together, he thought. Perhaps the Mexican nation could indeed be saved just as the flag had been redeemed.