Every morning and every evening since it opened in 1955, Disneyland has raised and lowered the Stars and Stripes at the flagpole on Main Street USA, per American flag etiquette. But that wasn't enough for the Happiest Place On Earth; in 2005, the park began hosting the Flag Retreat, a daily ceremony that makes George M. Cohan seem as un-American as Abbie Hoffman. There's a barbershop quartet, shout-outs to each branch of the military and sing-alongs to the Great American Patriotic Songbook. On busy Saturdays, it attracts passersby and garners a crowd of 30 or 40 people.
But amidst the spectacle, in the shaded benches that circle the flagpole, sits a group of veterans and military families less invested in the Mouse's pomp and circumstance than in the community the ceremony has unintentionally created thanks to park security guard Ernie Napper.
Though the ceremony starts around 4:30 p.m., the group begins arriving several hours earlier, catching up over Frappuccinos from the Disneyland Starbucks and staking out spaces on the benches for the regulars who trickle in. The attendees include Charlie Carmack, a 90-year-old World War II veteran from Livingston, Tennessee, who served for three years in the Navy, weathering typhoons and Zeros aboard the famed aircraft carrier USS Essex CV-9. And Don, a Vietnam War vet who can name the make, model and destination of the military planes that pass. They share war stories with each other and the rapt audience around them.
“Some of these men have never been thanked [for their service]”, explains Susan Emslie, a preschool teacher who runs a Facebook group dedicated to the ceremony that boasts 2,500 members. She's a compendium of knowledge when it comes to the Flag Retreat, rattling off present veterans' stories and their military rankings with ease. “They come around this flagpole to be engulfed in love and thanks because Ernie taught us that.”
Napper conducts the Saturday Flag Retreats. The vets affectionately call him “Gunny” because of his 22 years of service as a gunnery sergeant in the Marines. Decked out in his dress uniform, Napper exudes clout despite his gnarled, lanky figure. He's a minor celebrity in Disneyana as the recipient of the Walt Disney Legacy Award, the highest honor a park employee can receive.
More than just a cast member hamming it up for the crowds, Napper's earnest attention to veterans is what brings so many of the Flag Retreat regulars every Saturday. Stories of his devotion are legion: There was the man who bonded with his military father here; when the veteran passed away, the son drove to the Retreat directly after the funeral so Napper could embrace him in silence. One wife of a fallen soldier gave Napper her husband's bracelet. A leatherneck left Napper his Marine Corps tie clasp in his will. An ailing vet's dying wish was to meet Napper and partake in the retreat. “He was so weak that he had to hold one arm up with the other to salute,” Napper explains, holding back tears. “To hear someone say that meeting you is their dying wish, that's special.”
Growing up watching Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color, Napper was enamored with Disney long before he joined the park in 1992. Once hired, he quickly began assisting with the daily retiring of the colors, which was then treated as a mere formality. Napper sought out cast members, family, friends and anyone else he could to grow the audience. When veterans took notice (and the park's entertainment sector rebranded the retiring of the colors as a celebration of patriotism and Americana), the Flag Retreat took off.
Unsurprisingly, Napper doesn't take credit for the transformation. He sees it as carrying out Disney's dream. “Walt Disney always said if you looked into his eyes, there would be two flags and his spine would be red, white and blue,” he says. “He used to watch the flag lowering from his [private apartment] window above the fire station.”
The ceremony usually starts right after a Frozen-themed parade trickles out. At that time, a show-business voice announces the impending Flag Retreat over a loudspeaker: “Disneyland is proud to honor those who serve our country.” The Disneyland band marches down Main Street with the Dapper Dans, the park's barbershop quartet, in tow. They head toward the flagpole, inviting retreat attendees to sing along to “some of the most beautiful words ever written about this country”–that would be “You're a Grand Old Flag” and “America the Beautiful.”
Napper stands in military formation with two other Disneyland cast members, awaiting his cue to lower the flag. The band begins playing all the official service songs (even the Coast Guard, whose ditty is “Semper Paratus”), and the announcer invites veterans and members of each sector to form a circle around the flagpole. John F. Kennedy's “Ask not what your country can do for you” appeal plays, followed by excerpts of Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have a Dream” speech, then Neil Armstrong's “That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
On holidays, the circle of veterans gets as big as three rings of people around the flagpole; on a recent Saturday, it was just one. There are usually older veterans from the Vietnam War and Gulf War, but a few young men and women stand, their faces somber. Napper begins shouting commendations to the circle of military members, singling out a newcomer with a “Welcome home, sir.”
The flag lowers, the National Anthem playing in sync with the rhythm of its slow descent. Napper and his assistants fold the flag with precision. At the ceremony's end, one young man in the circle looks up toward the sky and wipes away tears.
It's hard to imagine the ceremony without Napper at the helm, something he freely worries about. “I'm afraid that when I retire, it will all go away, and I don't want that,” he says. “It's important to honor these veterans. We are losing them in generations.
“I hate to retire, but I'll have to someday,” he concludes. “I'd like to retire at the flagpole in uniform. I hope that may happen one day, but for now, I'm not going anywhere.”