„One American life from birth to death is like a single fiber. Each one is spun into the yarn of a family and the strand of a home town and the rope of a home state.“
Source: The Sand Pebbles (1962), Ch. 5; speech of Lt. Collins, the commander of the San Pablo to his crew at the start of summer cruising on the Yangtze River
Context: "Tomorrow we begin our summer cruising to show the flag on Tungting lake and the Hunan rivers," he said. "At home in America, when today reaches them, it will be Flag Day. They will gather to do honor and hear speeches. For us who wear the uniform, every day is Flag Day. We pay our honor in act and feeling and we have little need of words. But on this one day it will not hurt us to grasp briefly in words the meaning of our flag. That is what I want to talk about this morning.
"Our flag is the symbol of America. I want you to grasp what America really is," Lt. Collins said, nodding for emphasis. "It is more than marks on a map. It is more than buildings and land. America is a living structure of human lives, of all the American lives that ever were and ever will be. We in San Pablo are collectively only a tiny, momentary bit of that structure. How can we, standing here, grasp the whole of America?" He made a grasping motion. "Think now of a great cable," he said, and made a circle with his arms. "The cable has no natural limiting length. It can be spun out forever. We can unlay it into ropes, and the ropes, into strands, and the strands into yarns, and none of them have any natural ending. But now let us pull a yarn apart into single fibers —" he made plucking motions with his fingers " — and each man of us can find himself. Each fiber is a tiny, flat, yellowish thing, a foot or a yard long by nature. One American life from birth to death is like a single fiber. Each one is spun into the yarn of a family and the strand of a home town and the rope of a home state. The states are spun into the great, unending, unbreakable cable that is America."
His voice deepened on the last words. He paused, to let them think about it....
"No man, not even President Coolidge, can experience the whole of America directly," Lt. Collins resumed. "We can only feel it when the strain comes on, the terrible strain of hauling our history into a stormy future. Then the cable springs taut and vibrant. It thins and groans as the water squeezes out and all the fibers press each to each in iron hardness. Even then, we know only the fibers that press against us. But there is another way to know America."
He paused for a deep breath. The ranks were very quiet.
"We can know America through our flag which is its symbol," he said quietly. "In our flag the barriers of time and space vanish. All America that ever was and ever will be lives every moment in our flag. Wherever in the world two or three of us stand together under our flag, all America is there. When we stand proudly and salute our flag, that is what we know wordlessly in the passing moment....
"Understand that our flag is not the cloth but the pattern of form and color manifested in the cloth," Lt. Collins was saying. "It could have been any pattern once, but our fathers chose that one. History has made it sacred. The honor paid it in uncounted acts of individual reverence has made it live. Every morning in American schoolrooms children present their hearts to our flag. Every morning and evening we render it our military salutes. And so the pattern lives and it can manifest itself in any number of bits of perishable cloth, but the pattern is indestructible."