On a U.S. Army post, you don't need a watch to know what time it is. Bugle calls announcing the day's significant events blast from a multitude of speakers, starting with "Reveille" at 0600 hours and ending with "Taps" at 2300 hours.
My father was a career officer in the U.S. Army, so I grew up on bases far from our home state of Hawaii. On base, schoolchildren were exempt from responding to most of the bugle calls, save one. Toward sunset, the day cooling, we were usually outdoors after school, playing in some riotous way. But when we heard those first baleful notes of the bugle playing "Retreat," we knew that the American flag was being lowered and that we were to pay our respect. We would throw down our bikes, hop out of tree swings and drop our marbles or jump-ropes.
Across the base, every activity came to a halt; traffic stopped, people got out of their cars, and everyone, everywhere, stood at attention. Quietly, almost reverently, we all turned to where we knew the American flag had been flying all day. We knew which way to face as well as we knew which way home was. We placed our hands on our hearts. Just after the last note of the bugle trailed away with the light of the sun, a single round of cannon fire sounded, and we knew the ceremony was complete. Play resumed.
By the time I was old enough to understand what the flag stood for -- and what a pledge really was -- I had seen much of the political divides and wars around which the Army's mission is organized. I was in Berlin when the wall went up dividing the Communist East from the democratized West. My earliest memory is of seeing a gravestone in a sidewalk, marking the place where an East Berliner jumped to her death rather than live under the totalitarian Soviet regime.
We moved from Germany to Georgia in 1962, when segregation still had its hold on the South. I saw the signs at the water faucets, Dairy Queens and bathrooms, dividing "coloreds" from "whites." There were no gravestones in the sidewalks there, but there were gravestones in the eyes of the ones who suffered from the divide.
As a child, I pledged allegiance with ritualistic fervor, with pride in my father's uniform and the fact that we had put men on the moon. As a teenager who protested the Vietnam War and my father's uniform, I looked through the flag to the Constitution behind it and pledged allegiance, in part because I lived in a country that would allow me to burn the flag (which meant that I never would). As a lawyer building a career, I looked through the flag to the sincere individual effort that is woven into our collective culture. I pledged allegiance by making time to volunteer for causes in which I believed.
A pledge made with full attention is the intersection of hope and intention; the place where faith flows from prayer; where opportunity grows from effort.
Around the world, there was dancing in the streets because we put Barack Hussein Obama in the White House.
I pledge allegiance.
Paula A. Daniels is an attorney and a public works commissioner for the city of Los Angeles. She wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times.