What is a purple flag? Is it the same thing as a red flag? Is it one of those flags that one neighbor hangs on their flag pole during Easter season? Is it a racing thing? Or does it mean something else? Why the hell are you bothering with this in the first place? I’ll answer that in a minute. But first, let’s start with the truth.
For centuries, mankind has been engaged in an epic search for truth. That search for truth has started wars, built empires, challenged our understanding of the unknown, and brought generations of lives to a maddening end. And the truth is this: truth is everywhere. Truth is not always clear or obvious, it’s not always pretty, and it’s not always glorious or profound. Truth can be like the bird you see on your windowsill, or it can be the spider that just crawled under your bed. Indiana Jones once said that archaeology is the study of fact, not truth. “If it’s truth you’re interested in, Dr. Tyree’s philosophy class is right down the hall.” While facts are undeniable and essential to understanding anything, truth is open to interpretation.
I’m fascinated with obscure and random truths – the little things, the details, the oddities. All of it. This whole projects starts with a keen eye for observation. It’s inspired by seeing what’s right in front of you, seeing what’s right there that no one else can see (or wants to see). I love to observe happenings, people, and things-and then piece together a story from that. You can see and hear the most obscure things and find profound meaning in every small detail if you just keep your eyes, ears and minds open. And those obscurities can make for great stories. I like to think of truth as if it were a song. A song may be written by one person, but it sounds different to different people. Songs can have amazing, poetic lyrics that tell moving stories, but it is the music that makes it special. Such is life. You can speak the truth, but it’s more fun to sing it.
Sometimes truth and bullshit go hand in hand, like a couple that fights but ends up sleeping together at the end of the day. Truth always lurks where bullshit is up to something. If you work in advertising, you know exactly what I mean. Sometimes people work very hard to cover up the truth. Frankly, some truths are better off unseen. But sometimes you need to simply call bullshit on something, or someone, for the sake of doing so.
Let’s get back to the whole purple flag thing. I’d like to say it was an honorable distinction for a public service or duty. But it isn’t. Truthfully, it’s inspired by my grandmother Louise, rest her soul. She was the matriarch of our family who had an incurable intolerance for nonsense. You could find her in a peach-colored crushed velvet recliner in the TV room of her house, seated next to a side table that was a lacquered collage of semi-precious stones. On this side table could always be found a packet of Virginia Slim 100s, a lighter, and elegant gold ash tray, a box of tissues, Reader’s Digest, and a vodka gimlet cocktail on the coaster. The TV room she shared with my grandfather was a place to watch birds out the window as well as sports and soap operas on the TV. But she actually saw everything else going on in the world from that seat. And even though she didn’t travel far, she accumulated a worldly sense of awareness and logic. She was inspiring, she was very loving, and she was easily irritated. She could uncork pretty easy – it didn’t take much. If I had a quarter every time I asked her to say “gosh darn!” instead of “goddam!” then I’d…well…I’d have a lot in the bank.
Born from this intolerance came several poetic catchphrases that my grandmother used, the kind that only an older person could get away with using: “That’s the pot calling the kettle black!” or “Judas priest, and all his followers!”One in particular was one she saved for when something was particularly shocking or generated a strong emotional reaction. She used to say: “That’ll run up the purple flag!”. I had no idea what that meant, but it was my queue to laugh because it meant something pissed off Grandma considerably, and that was usually pretty funny in its own right.
One Christmas, my Grandpa Del received a really nice Detroit Pistons sweatshirt as a gift. This was back in 1990 when Detroit was in the middle of their second championship season. Sorry, I forgot to mention that I’m originally from Toledo, Ohio. Everyone in Northwest Ohio typically roots for Detroit sports teams, and Grandpa Del was no exception. Anyway, the sweatshirt was completely unlike anything else in his wardrobe, so it was a “fun” gift. Now, my grandmother was used to getting all the attention, and Grandpa Del was an admirable second fiddle. For whatever reason, this Christmas unofficially turned into the ‘Let’s dote on Grandpa this year Christmas’. It was fun for all of the family. And yes, Grandma was pissed. You could see from her cringing face that she was having none of it. Every gift he opened was met with her scowl. Grandpa Del had just opened up his Pistons sweatshirt, and before he could finish his “Thank y…”, my Grandma interjected and yelled out “Well if he ever wears that then we’ll run up the purple flag!” At first, there was outrage by the rest of us. Dammit all! Just once the old man gets to be the hero and not the sidekick, and she still has to muck that up. Now my Grandpa Del had a sharp, dry wit that would make any British person blush. So how did he respond? He slowly, purposefully put the sweatshirt on over his dress shirt, lit his pipe, and appeared absolutely content. He looked great, like a head coach minus the whistle. I would’ve given anything to hear him say to her: “Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Louise!” as he puffed his Captain Black tobacco-filled pipe. But he didn’t. He knew better.
So back to the objection: what the hell does it mean to run up a purple flag? Good question. Frankly, I never got a clear explanation so I had to draw my own conclusions. Ironically, it wasn’t until she passed away that I had an idea as to what her catchphrase meant. One day I saw a funeral procession traveling through an intersection. It was a long procession of black cars that each had purple flags on the hood. If you are driving in a proper funeral procession, its customary to display purple flags on the hood of your automobile and turn your headlights on so everyone knows that you are part of the procession. Hey, that’s it! She must have been implying that when you “run up the purple flag”, then some nonsense was essentially driving her to her grave. It made perfect sense.
Side note: In Southern California (where I live now), there have been radio spots playing for years for a mattress company called Sit-n-Sleep that have become part of local popular culture. The recurring theme is the company accountant (Irwin) is so outraged at the founder (Larry) for all his crazy low prices that it drives him to madness and he always shouts out “You’re Killing Me, Larry!” at the end of the spot. I saw it as something similar.
That’s one theory. But it’s not the only use of a purple flag in the world. In addition to funeral flags, here are some additional trivia about purple flags that I’ve uncovered thus far:
- Purple has been associated with royalty for centuries, as the dye originally used to produce it was rare and costly.
- A purple flag at the beach indicates that dangerous marine life has been spotted in the area (most likely jellyfish).
- Purple Flag is an accreditation scheme across the UK and Ireland that recognizes excellence in the management of town and city centres at night.
- According to UrbanDictionary.com, a purple flag is the action of calling someone on their bullshit. If someone tells an improbable story, just wave the imaginary purple flag. (http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Purple+Flag)
So in lieu of all of that, the concept of “the purple flag” has a special meaning to me: truth. The Purple Flag is more than just a banner of truth – it’s the banner of random, obscure, entertaining, ugly, and fascinating truths everywhere in the world. That’s why I’m starting this project: to have fun recording and documenting all the oddball, awesome, stupid, silly truths out there that are starting us in the face and begging to be recognized. And this is where we raise them up.
Making The Purple Flag work is going to take a lot of work and dedication. But I’m passionate about the cause and ready for the task at hand. But it’s not all about me, it’s you too. It’s about all of us. This should be a flag that everyone can wave. The Purple Flag should be an outlet for everyone. So I’m asking you to share your insights, thoughts and talents to help make it mean something. If you see something that is funny because it’s just so stupid, wave your purple flag. If you see something that is just flat-out wrong in every way, wave your purple flag. If you are aware of something that no one else understands and you’re going to break a goddamn building down if somebody doesn’t listen soon, wave your purple flag. If you see something that is beautiful and honest, and sadly may never be seen by another, wave your purple flag.
Let’s dance on this pole. Start purple flag-tagging. And share it.
My name is Matt. Fly high, flag bearers. Talk to you again soon.