The 60-something man behind the counter of the little Army/Navy surplus store stared at me intently from the moment I walked in.
My wife, Ann, and I had just completed a tour of the USS Constitution — “Old Ironsides” — the famous three-masted, wooden-hulled ship launched by the U.S. Navy in 1797 and still afloat at the Charlestown Navy Yard near Boston.
We stopped in the little shop out of curiosity on the way back to our bus, after peeking in the window and seeing an expansive clutter of what looked like surplus World War II military equipment.
We were the only would-be customers in the store, and I caught the glare in the clerk’s stare the moment I closed the door behind me. His salt and pepper hair was cut in what was called a “burr” in those days — about the length of the hair on a newly enlisted recruit in boot camp. He wore a military-style khaki jacket and on the wall just above his thin, weathered face hung an American flag.
I smiled and nodded to the man, then turned my eyes to a table full of gas masks and old canteens near the door, taking Ann by the hand as I sensed growing tension in the room.
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the man was now in front of the counter and, as I turned my head to look back at him, he began to shout: “Out of my store you (expletive) hippie — you long-haired (expletive). We don’t need your kind around here.”
The year was 1969. My hair was indeed not a burr, although by the standard of the day and that of the “hippies” he was accusing me of being, it was short — over my ears, but a politically-correct distance from my shoulders.
Ann and I were hardly anti-American subversives. We had just finished training as short-term missionaries for the United Methodist Church and were about to leave for West Africa. Ann would teach English and I would work in literacy while managing an audio-visual center in Bo, Sierra Leone.
As we swiveled and walked back out the door, the man continued to shout obscenities and shake his fists in the air.
Thinking back about the incident today, I am still amazed at how a person’s hair length can cause such anger and hatred in someone else. This man did not know me — had never seen me before — but, after a split-second glance at my hair, he was sure I was a lazy, subversive, worthless maggot of a human being intent on destroying America.
As hairstyles were to evolve, if he had waited to judge me, he might have one day concluded I was a politically conservative country music star from Nashville, Tennessee, or an NBA basketball player, or a Vietnam veteran about to carry the flag in the dedication of a new American Legion Post.
But this was 1969. A little bit of extra hair said to some people I might enjoy Beatles music. To others, like this man, it might say I opposed the war in Vietnam — maybe even had no respect for the sacrifices of a loved one fighting in that bloody conflict.
Symbols are shorthand for whatever we decide they mean. And, often, the person displaying the symbol and the person viewing it have no agreement on the meaning.
This is good to remember today, in these times when symbols are being used and misused more and more to divide our nation into camps for the culture wars. They are often the tools of well-intentioned people taking emotional shortcuts to conclusions the facts cannot support.
They also can be intended tools of disruption and division — used skillfully by self-centered politicians and media manipulators to rally the prejudices of the ignorant and the hate-filled.
Even the American flag can be a symbol of either love or hate, democracy or authoritarianism, justice or injustice — depending on who is waving it and who is watching it wave.
The task for those who want the best for our nation, I suppose, is not to be so quick to label and judge others based on a first glance, not to allow symbols to replace rational thought.
The guy in a dark business suit driving by in his electric car, eating a tofu sandwich, may have been part of the insurrectionist mob attacking the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
The guy with the rifle on the rack in the rear window of his pick-up truck could just be on his way to hunt some quail after teaching Sunday School at the Presbyterian church.