Sunday, January 5, 2020


The flag is wool with forty-eight stars, and forty feet by twenty feet.  There’s a color picture from 1920 of my grandmother under the flag hung vertically waiving a slight breeze from a limestone archway.  My grandmother was posed at the entrance of her family home, the residence of her father, Dr. John Tennyson Haynes, the Commandant of the Ohio Soldiers and Sailors Home of Sandusky, Ohio.  Even though the picture is a moment frozen in time, the flag waves with one corner of its stripes—one senses the air and flag wafting about my grandmother.

The flag linked generations. My great grandfather was the son of Dr. Moses Haynes who had served in the Civil War as an army surgeon for the 69th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. John Haynes had followed in his father’s footsteps and become an Army doctor who was appointed at the turn of the 20th Century to manage the Soldiers and Sailors Home. The Soldiers and Sailors Home was a type of Veterans Affairs hospital established for veterans of the Civil War to convalesce. The home later served veterans of the Spanish-American War, WWI, and WWII.  When John Haynes retired, the flag was presented to my great-grandfather.  My grandmother had four brothers but as the only daughter, she may have been given the honor of receiving the flag. As a boy in the 1960s, she would fly the flag from her house on Memorial Day and the Fourth of July.

I could see the flag’s forty-eight stars lined in straight rows made it different from the fifty-star flag with its staggered rows.  This was a symbol of a different era— the forty-seventh and eight stars would have been New Mexico and Arizona, the last states of the continental United States to be admitted into the union in 1912.  Alaska and Hawaii were still to come in 1959. I suppose there was no order to the stars — that no state claimed a particular star on the flag.  But I wondered more about the symbolism of picking stars to represent states.  The idea that unreachable celestial entities represent a state. The stars symbolized great hope for the states.

When my grandmother died in 1971, the flag came to my mother who was an only child. It came to our house folded tightly in a triangle. If we wanted to fly the flag, it needed great space, flying somewhere up high.  My father took special delight in rigging a line for the flag.  He ran a rope between the upper branches of two trees in our front yard using a bow and arrow and guided the rope with pulleys.  The flag could then be raised and lowered like the pennant but flown vertically, the same as in the picture of my grandmother.  My father would always fly a small American flag from our house on Saturdays and Sundays but on Memorial Day and Fourth of July, he would fly the forty-eight-star flag. I used to help him raise and lower the flag by holding it as he pulled on the lines. My job was to keep it from touching the ground. When it lowered it, I would gather it up and then pull it taught with my father holding the other end. That is also when he showed me how to fold the flag into a tightly folded triangle.  


When we flew the flag, sightseers who would sometimes drive down our street, called Shady Lane, to look at the houses (maybe because a sign at the entrance said “Private Drive” that it attracted gawkers).  Drivers would slow down or stop their cars to look at the flag. My father took delight in watching the reactions of passers-by. 

When the flag flew on those holidays, it would waft and billow in the breeze even when it seemed there was no wind it would swirl as if it had come to life slowly dancing. I used to stretch on the grass under the flag and watch its movement.  It took on a personality — playful, almost at times gently taunting.  You might be ready to grasp it but then it would find a light eddy of wind and flip-up just as you reached out to hold it. The flag showed the same little flourishes it had waving over my grandmother.

In 1973, after my parents' divorce, we moved away from the house and the flag went into storage in mothballs.  We moved into a series of condominiums that had no place for such a large flag.

When I bought my first house in 1996 in Alexandria, Virginia, my father suggested we find a way to rig up a line to fly the flag that had now been passed to me. Twenty-five years later, he figured a way to rig up the flag running a line through two trees.  This time he tethered a line to a hammer and heaved it up through a tree limb to set the rigging.  I continued the tradition of flying the flag on important national holidays and watching sail in the wind.  I think my wife, Eileen, may have been slightly horrified by the size of the flag and attention it drew.

We moved four years later when Eileen was posted overseas to work at an embassy.  Since our return, I  haven’t had a place to fly the flag.  None of the houses we’ve lived in have had the room to accommodate such a large flag.

The American flag conveys a multitude of meanings but for me, this particular flag has a different meaning than all other American flags.  It’s a flag held in a picture 100 years ago flying over my grandmother from her home at the end of “The Great War” in Europe.  With the next generation, the flag was flown with great care and an element of fun by a man who served in WWII.  My father must have seen that flag every day of his life in the Navy that symbolized a country fighting a great terror in Europe and the Pacific.  He flew the flag on spring and summer days from the home where his wife and children lived in a Northern Ohio town. 

I have the flag still folded in a tight triangle from the last time it was taken down from our house in Alexandria. I’m waiting or the next opportunity to fly it in the breeze.  And I’m sure the flag is looking forward to that day.

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