It's kind of reassuring that the Fourth of July is virtually the only American holiday that hasn't been moved up to Monday so everyone can have a long weekkend. Even the way we celebrate it is almost unchanged from the earliest days.

The only thin that changes is the flag itself. Just in my lifetime it7s been through a lot.

They used to bunch it up like curtains and call it bunting. It was bunting, you recall, that broke John Wilkes Booth's leg: He caught his spur on it when he jumped out of the fatal box at Ford's Theatre.

There was always bunting in th Bobbsey Twins books, probably because they were always celebrating the Fourth. I read every Bobbey Twin book, and I have mixed up my own childhood with theirs a little.

I can even remember the coulds of yellow dust that flew up from the country road the time Freddie almost blew his fingers off with a cherry bomb. But surely that wasn't our porch that was strung with bunting from every pillar?

The Boy Scouts were very big on the flag. There were several pages of flag lore in the Handbook which we had to know even to make Tenderfoot.

It was sort of a federal crime to display the flag the wrong way. The stars had to be on the left side. But it was on the viewer's left or the flag's left? I never did know for sure, though I got to be Second Class and would have made First if the troop hadn't disbanded when our leader moved to Michigan under a cloud.

Anyway, I forgot about the flag for a long time. Teen-agers have enough to worry about. There was a flag on the corner of the stage in the high school auditorium, erect on a golden stand with lion's feet and dominated by an oversized golden spearhead on top.

FLAG, From B1

We would stare at it during assemblies because it was easier to look at than Mr. Shineman, who was short and threatening and could pick out an inattentive idler as far back as the 15th row.

I wondered why flags had spearheads: surely they weren't actually used to stick people with? It would stain the clooth, a subject on which the Handbook was very severe.

We saw a great deal of the flag in World War II -- barbers would have them in the window with the legend, "These Colors Don't Run" -- and service families had little silky emblems that hung from windowshade tassels. If your boy was killed, you could show a Gold Star emblem.

Those were great days for the flag: It flew year-round from may front porches and windows, and on the Fourth it was everywhere. At parades kids waved small flags with vestigial spearheads of gilded wood.

Nobody dreamed of spitting or standing on it or making bathing suits out of it. Elaborate care was taken to prevent any part of it touching the ground. Advertisers loved it too.

Some time in the '50s we all suddenly noticed how bright and clear the flag was looking, even the old one on top of City Hall, and then we realized that it was now being made from nylon instead of cotton. We graves in never see another faded flag [except maybe on the Civil War graves in New england cemeteries].

Then they started adding stars. It wasn't as much of a shock as we thought it would be. It's amazing: No matter what crazy odd number of states there are, someone always figures out a graceful way to arrange those stars.

The '60s were tough. The flag became a red-hot political issue which grew more convoluted every year. If you potched your jeans with one. you were a Commie, but if you pasted one on your hardhat or wore one on your lapel, you were a patriot. If you used a flag as a cape, you could start a riot, but if you painted one on the tumbler of your cement mixer, you were just a good old boy.

The difference had to do with the length of your hair. Oh, it was a complicated situaton all right.

It was something else, though, when you were living abroad and attended some foreign ceremony amid strangers and saw that old familiar shape up there snapping in the wind. No matter how angry you were, or how cynical, it could get you.

The '60s are long gone, of course, and it is hard to believe that we literally beat each other with baseball bats, the all-American weapon because of exactly how and where we displayed the flag.

The other day I passed a construction site at lunchtime and saw two shirtless men in overalls having their sandwiches amiably together in the shade of a tractor. One had very short gray hair. The other was much younger and had blond hair in a ponytail cleat to his shoulderblades.

It was the young one who was wearing the hardhat with a flag painted on it.

Maybe it isn't the flay that has changed so much. Maybe it's us. CAPTION: Picture, Flag