Commentary: Flowers are red: Use creativity as we find new ways to deal with COVID-19

By Col. Tracy Allen

I have a 45-revolutions-per-minute vinyl record of “Flowers are Red” by Harry Chapin that hangs in a frame above my desk. In an office otherwise filled with mementos that span many of my previous assignments, it is the most significant thing.

Col. Tracey Allen

During childhood, my father would often play and sing this song to me and my sisters. My father couldn’t carry a tune, so that part is best not talked about too much, but it was the message contained in the lyrics that has stayed with me and guided me always.

In the song, a young boy takes great joy in drawing and painting flowers in all the colors of the rainbow; however, he moves to a different school where the teacher insists that flowers are red and grass is green. Over time, the boy conforms and begins to only draw red flowers with green leaves. Eventually, he moves again and goes to a new school. As he begins to draw neat rows of red flowers with green leaves, the new teacher encourages him to not limit himself and use all the colors of the rainbow.

This song has always reminded me of the importance of nurturing creativity and imagination and serves as a sobering reminder to not stifle it. I’ve always enjoyed having a little “fun” in executing my duties and especially relish the challenge it provides when I can find a new or more interesting way to get something done within a set of constraints.

Memories and thoughts are fluid things, and I have been thinking much more of another message contained in the lyrics. This message is that of culture and the power of conformity. For the boy in the song, the teacher who stifled his view of flowers was undoubtedly responsible for a bleak climate. She wanted him to conform in a negative way; however, the next teacher really did want to try to help him see the world positively and appreciate its beauty.

In the military, we use the term “esprit de corps” when we think about cohesiveness and a sense of belonging among our airmen. Numerous articles detail how esprit de corps is critical to our mission and to our sense of well-being and it can operate as a protective factor during difficult moments. We have a variety of ways in which we promote positive conformity or esprit de corps. In the military, formal means include “Hail and Farewells,” dining-in and dining-out events, Air Force Balls, and drill and ceremonies. Informally, there are First Fridays, crud tournaments, golfing, Friday afternoon walkarounds, coffee talks and lunches.

The pandemic has placed us under unexpected constraints, and many traditional opportunities to connect have been impacted. It’s hard to connect when we can’t see facial expressions behind masks or when we are on separate shifts or telecommuting and can’t see anyone at all. It’s hard to hold a sporting event or crud tournament when you can’t stand within 6 feet of each other. Our traditional means to establish esprit de corps have become like the neat rows of red flowers with green leaves. How ironic is this when we have never needed this sense of belonging more?

We are being challenged with implementing COVID-19 courtesies to protect ourselves, others and the mission. We are modifying traditional events to be COVID-19-friendly or coming up with new ways of connecting altogether. Thankfully, unlike the generation impacted during the 1918 pandemic, we have technology to help, as well as the promise of a vaccine, so we know this won’t last forever.

When we look back, will we be able to talk about, maybe even reminisce, on how we found other ways to reach each other and connect? Will we remember the drive-thru promotion parades and how they got better and more elaborate every time? Will we challenge ourselves with a virtual dining-out functions? In other words, are we conforming to the present circumstances in a positive way and ensuring esprit de corps across our units? Are we drawing with all the colors of the rainbow?

Col. Tracy Allen is commander of the 436th Medical Group at Dover Air Force Base.