By Sidhartha Wakade
Sitting in front of the fire station in downtown Madison is a small yet imposing mailbox, brightly painted in red, white and blue.
Upon closer inspection, however, the box is not for dropping off mail. The paint job is one thing, but written across the front are the words “WORN FLAG DROP OFF.” In case someone misses that warning, there is a helpful “This is not a mailbox” warning on the inside as the hatch is opened.
The depository was set up as a collaboration between the fire department, the city of Madison and the American Legion as a way to gather American flags for proper disposal, according to Jim NeSmith, commander of American Legion Post 37 in Madison. Only flags are to be placed inside, he said.
“We’ve only gotten one piece of mail in it since we’ve had it there,” NeSmith said. “I think that’s pretty good.”
The box was placed in front of the fire station in 2004, according to Fire Marshal Gene Porter. The box was placed there by the city, the fire department empties it and stores the flags and the American Legion picks them up for disposal, Porter explained.
For a small box, the depository is surprisingly busy. Large or small, many flags find themselves in the box.
“We average maybe three to four thousand flags,” NeSmith said. “At least that many. We have had as high as 6,000 flags.”
Porter said that due to the volume of flags they receive, the depository needs to be emptied out frequently.
“We have to empty it about twice a week,” Porter said. “It is very busy.”
It is not just locals that use it either. People from surrounding towns also drive into Madison to drop off their flags.
“We’ve had people from Greensboro, Lake Oconee… because there’s not a drop place anywhere else,” NeSmith said.
“We actually have places send in flags through the mail to us,” Porter said. “I’ve received them from Maine, I’ve received some from Midwestern states… people that are passing through see the box and they’ll come in and ask for an address to send stuff to.”
As for what happens to all of those flags, they are either burned or buried after the proper ceremony is performed, according to NeSmith. The ceremony takes place usually twice a year at a designated burn site, when the weather gets colder, he said.
There are usually four to five men at one of the site, NeSmith said. The whole process takes an entire day, he explained.
“It takes pretty much all day,” he said. “And we try not to do it in the summer because it’s so hot.”
After preparations are complete, the Legion members commence with the ceremony before getting rid of the flags, NeSmith said..
“We’ll say these flags have done their mission, have flown over a house or a government building… we say what they have done to represent our country,” NeSmith said. “A couple of prayers are done and then we close.”
There is one thing that both Porter and NeSmith would like for depositor to know that would make life easier for everyone involved.
“The little flags on the wooden sticks, people will come up and put it in the box and those sticks get hung up cross ways in there,” Porter said. “We have a note on it asking people to remove it from the wooden sticks… but it still happens.”
“When you put that in there, you can’t close it,” NeSmith said.
Though the upkeep of the depository and the disposal ceremony are time consuming, NeSmith said he does not mind it because it is the proper thing to do.
“That’s what you’re supposed to do,” NeSmith said. “We’ve been doing that for a long time now.”