From Port St. Joe to Vancouver: Flags and Feelings

Port St. Joe, Florida (pop. 4,750) overlooks the Gulf of Mexico and some of the world’s most beautiful beaches. Vancouver, British Columbia is consistently voted one of the world’s most livable places and is the host of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. What could these two cities possibly have in common?

Vancouver has been immersed in its Olympics, the culmination of several years of intricate planning and substantial expenditure.  The tension and expectation building amongst organizers and, in more recent months, the community as a whole, was released in spectacular and emotional fashion at the Olympic Opening Ceremony.

It took over 30 minutes for the 3,500-strong school choir to take their place in front of the O-zone stage

I recorded the event because, on the same evening, I was with Gabriel, my 12-year old son, visiting the Richmond O-zone, a community gathering place in a city that is part of greater Vancouver but has a proud character of its own.  Richmond’s civic center is surrounded by an impressive 100-acre indoor/outdoor recreational complex that  had been converted into a series of spaces celebrating the Games.

A giant screen was erected to provide O-zone visitors with a ‘live feed’ to the Opening Ceremony later in the evening.  In the meantime, the Richmond organizers had the brilliant – if somewhat ambitious – idea of assembling its entire school district to form a 3,500-strong pupils’ choir.  If every child brought with them two or three close relatives, that would ensure an audience of at least 7,000.  In fact, it felt as though at least 15,000 people attended the event.

The Olympic Opening Ceremony, piped live to the Richmond O-zone.

And this is how Vancouver 2010 suddenly took me back to Port St. Joe. Richmond’s O-zone was energized by a palpable sense of family and the accompanying emotional charge of a diverse assembly of kids, teachers, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.  The Olympics was the perfect catalyst for families to come together and celebrate their kids’ endeavor. I had seen it happen many times in the little town of Port St. Joe, at street parades,  community events and under the Friday night lights of the High School football game. This was the first such truly community-wide coming-together that I had experienced since arriving in Canada in 2007.

The Games provided the excuse, as well as the electricity.  Everyone at the Richmond O-zone seemed to feel connected to what was about to happen at the Opening Ceremony a few miles away in downtown Vancouver.  Richmond’s kids started their concert with the national anthem, Oh Canada!  It’s a stirring song with a powerful melody and I welcomed the opportunity to take-in the atmosphere. As I turned around I saw something that has come to epitomize these Games;  pride in what Canada stands for and the importance of the national flag – emotions that, once again, took me back to Port St. Joe.   Behind me had been sitting a group of elderly Punjabi women, dressed for the weather but unmistakable in their traditional clothing.  Now they were standing, hands on heart, stretching between them a full-size Canadian flag.

Flying the flag in 2001, at the St Joe/Arvida office in Port St Joe

I recalled, very clearly, eight and a half years ago, walking down Reid Avenue, Port St Joe’s main street, and seeing a large, folded American flag in the display cabinet of the local auction room. I bought the flag and immediately hung it on the front of the St Joe office where  I worked; a visceral response to the previous day’s terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Throughout our little town, others did likewise. And now here, in Vancouver, in entirely different circumstances, people were finding flags and waving them, some without thought, others as important symbols in which they had vested a new – or renewed – pride.

Everyone in town knows a kid in the Homecoming Parade.

Kids; the flag and what it stands for; singing; coming together as a community; these are  what little Port St Joe and big city Vancouver have in common. It may take an Olympic Games in a place the size of Vancouver and not much more than the Homecoming Parade in a town like Port St Joe, but the emotions generated are heartfelt and welcome and, for me, link these places across thousands of miles.

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