San Martin resident Bob Shelton thinks the entire country is in distress, but you don’t have to call 9-1-1 when you drive past his home and see his inverted American flag flapping in the sky overhead.
Shelton, 64, is making a political statement that might be illegal, and has certainly prompted dozens of strangers passing by on the freeway to stop or call the police to ensure everyone at home is safe, or just to be curious.
“I believe the country is under assault, and not everybody is aware of it,” Shelton said one recent afternoon over coffee at the breakfast table in his spacious, single-story home on Murphy Avenue, just a couple hundred yards west of the U.S. 101. He has been “riled up” since March 23, 2010, the day President Barack Obama signed the Health Care and Reconciliation Act. That’s the day Shelton first hoisted the inverted American flag.
Shelton, a U.S. Navy veteran, thinks the danger extends much further than health care reform. The federal law merely represents a pattern of growing governmental abuse of the people’s constitutional rights. He thinks Obama himself has advocated and practiced repeated “walkarounds” of the constitutional limits of the presidency, and created an unknown number of policy “czars” who are employed by the federal government but are not accountable to anyone else.
“I’m not against healthcare modification, but the (2010) healthcare plan is a tool being used to change the basic structure of the country,” Shelton said. The 1,900-page bill of which the retiree and self-proclaimed “glutton for punishment” has read in entirety hides dozens of new laws, and changes to existing laws that have nothing to do with healthcare reform.
“There are provisions that require congress to change laws already on the books regarding property rights,” for example, Shelton said. “Privacy, and property rights are being circumvented by health care.”
But the retired aerospace engineer is not solely making a statement. He welcomes a conversation about politics, the law or the government with anyone who notices his flag and cares enough to stop by. Since his flag was first hoisted upside down nearly two years ago, about 40 people have stopped by his home. Most of them are just curious, and many end up staying for lengthy, friendly conversations. A California Highway Patrol officer and sheriff’s deputy have stopped on separate occasions. A U.S. Army sergeant in uniform also made an unexpected visit one day.
Only one stranger so far, who stopped at the home on the Fourth of July, was angry about Shelton’s statement.
Once every few weeks, the Times staff hears a report on the police scanner of a motorist driving by the home on U.S. 101 who called 9-1-1 to alert authorities to the inverted flag, taking it as a possible sign that the resident is in distress and needs assistance. Shelton said none of those who have stopped by so far announced they were dispatched to the home by authorities.
According to the federal flag code, which was adopted in 1923 to preserve respect and dignity for the country’s official banner, the American flag should never be flown upside down or “with the union down,” except as “a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property.” But there is no provision for enforcing the law, and the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that any method of display, and even destruction of the American flag is protected by the First Amendment right to free speech.
The American Legion, a veterans service organization, sponsors an extensive, nationwide American flag education program. Ever since George W. Bush was elected president in 2000, the Legion’s national headquarters in Indianapolis has received phone calls or e-mails “a couple times a month” from citizens across the country reporting an American flag flying upside down, according to American Legion deputy director Mike Buss.
“We hope everyone will fly the flag properly. However, there are times people are not going to do that,” Buss said. “Most of the time it’s because they’re not aware, and nine times out of 10 they will correct their ways. The other minority out there, who are making a political statement, there’s nothing we can or will say that will change that person’s mind.”
In the Navy, Shelton served as an anti-submarine warfare officer from 1965 to 1969, and is not much different from his neighbors. After his service which brought him to Vietnam, Japan and the Philippines, Shelton enjoyed a lengthy career in the Bay Area aerospace industry as a mechanical engineer and project manager, building displays for military aircraft and the space program.
He moved to San Martin with his wife in 1980. The couple’s home sits adjacent to a cul-de-sac created by freeway construction years ago that disrupted the rural thoroughfare’s original route. The upside-down Old Glory at Shelton’s home flies above the First Navy Jack – one of the country’s first flags, which dates back to pre-revolutionary times and depicts a rattlesnake against a red-and-white striped background and the motto, “Don’t Tread On Me.”
Now retired, Shelton is a member of a BMW club with whom he takes monthly rides in his Z3. He is growing grapes on his property and wants “to make one bottle of wine that’s drinkable.” Shelton also gardens at his home, and takes care of a pool of Japanese koi fish outside his front door.
Perhaps expectedly, Shelton shoots guns for sport and is a strong believer in the constitutional right to bear arms – another American freedom he said has slowly disappeared in recent years.
While he is unwavering in his views, which he describes as “moderate right” and not in alignment with the Tea Party movement, he claims to pay close attention to the broad spectrum of news reports and analysis, gathering current events reports from a variety of sources. And he’s open to being convinced he’s wrong.
“The whole idea is to make it a conversation, not a diatribe,” Shelton said.
In fact, he cites the lack of voter education, and the tunnel-vision focus of millions of “one-issue” electors as a major contributing cause to the danger the country now finds itself in. Too many voters, he said, make up their minds based on a candidate’s stance on just one of the many issues that are important, or by reading a few headlines in the news racks.
“There’s a responsibility that comes with living in a country that gives you the ability to make these decisions,” Shelton said.
He owes his political views to his childhood, having grown up in southern California, at a time and in a place with fewer restrictions on people who were simply trying to take care of themselves and their families.
“At 16 (years old) I was driving around shooting rabbits and nobody was harassing me. I was responsible. We’ve gotten to a place where people aren’t told to be responsible. They’re told not to think for themselves. They ask the government to bail them out.”