It is, by all record-book standards, the ultimate star-spangled banner.
Today, between the Washington Monument and the Capitol, Len Silverfine plans to unfurl his own Flag Day monument to the American dream -- two acres of Old Glory.
At that size, "We can't even talk about flag etiquette," says Silverfine with a smile.
You can't carry it under your right arm. It takes a truck to move all seven tons of the Milliken and Co. polyester flag. This morning, members of Iron Workers Local 5 will spend an hour unloading it from the truck with a crane and forklift. Once unloaded, it will need 100 American Legion volunteers and 50 boy scouts to unfold it.
You can't keep it from touching the ground. Where else could you put a flag that measures 411 feet by 210 feet -- a total of 86,310 square feet? The stars are 13 feet in diameter. The stripes are 16 feet wide. It took eight seamstresses six weeks to sew it together. In Evansville, Ind., where it was assembled, they laid it out next to a local airport runway. (The flag does, however, rest on a two-acre Celanese Mirafi fabric ground cover, which is laid first.)
You can't run it up a flagpole. But you can rig it to the suspension cables of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, between the New York boroughs of Staten Island and Brooklyn (Silverfine's home town). nThat is eventually where the flag, specifically engineered for the bridge, will go once Len Silverfine and the Great American Flag Fund raise $550,000 for the installation. He has no doubts that he can do that.
After all, three years ago he set out raising money to make the largest flag anywhere -- and here it is.
"No question about it," says Silverfine. The 'Guinness Book of World Records' lists the one we did in '76 as the largest." That was this flag's predecessor: a 71,000-square-footer that met an untimely end by tearing after hanging only eight hours on the cables of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge on June 28, 1976. Silverfine says that the 30 ironworkers who helped erect it stood and watched with tears in their eyes.
The creator of the record-breaking banner -- which will be here until Sunday -- was once a vice president at a New York advertising agency. But a few years ago, he began wondering what it all meant, and left for the mountains of Vermont and a teaching job at the state university. But he's not at all the type whose bumper stickers read "USA -- Love It or Leave It." "Geez, I was practically a communist when I was in high school," he says.
He takes this flag very seriously. "Is the Statue of Liberty extravagant? Is the Washington Monument extravagant?
"You just have to experience it," says Silverfine. "you feel this brightening when you look at it. You can't be indifferent to this flag."
Silverfine never was. He got the idea to make this flag back in Vermont, where a friend suggested they make a flag float for the Bicentennial parade in Warren, Vt. The float never came off, but Silverfine remained intrigued by the idea. At the time, he was teaching at the University of Vermont and at McGill University in Montreal, living in Bakersfield, Vt., in a house he designed himself. "I was not doing much -- enjoying life, getting into myself, enjoying my own pleasures, my own toys, not having much responsibility," he says, "when I thought, 'It's not going to work like this.'"
Silverfine, born in Brooklyn, remembered how his father, a Polish immigrant, would take him to the Statue of Liberty and tell him how proud he was to be in America. "I feel terrific about America," he says. "I spent some time working in Paris and Brussels. There's no other place I'd rather live. I believe we have to keep this country strong. We're not a perfect country."
He wanted his flag to be the embodiment of the American dream, in a way. So after he tried the Bicentennial flag -- to which there was tremendous public response, he says -- he left Vermont, left his girlfriend and set off for New York.
He carried two big suitcases full of slides of the 1976 flag that failed, a slide projector and a back pack. He thought he looked like a Sherpa guide. His friends thought he was crazy. Most of the companies he went to see for donations thought he was crazy. Some were even rude.
The first place he got far was Revlon -- the company whose ad account he had handled for Grey Advertising. He showed the slides to Paul Woolard, president of Revlon.
"When I first showed him the slides, he had tears in his eyes," says Silverfine. Woolard said he could give Silverfine $25,000, an office and a phone. "He told me later, 'We didn't know how to say no to you.'"
Then they showed the slides to Michel Bergerac, Revlon chairman of the board. Recalls Silverfine, "He said, 'I think I'm going to cry.' He told me, "You'll probably have harder times than you think. We'll make some more funds available.'" That was a $25,000 loan.
Later, Revlon officials introduced Silverfine to other corporate executives who donated money or services. Woolard is now chairman of the Great American Flag Fund, the group that helps organize and raise money for this project.
Silverfine decries those who take a cynical view of what he's doing. "People think I'm trying to make some money off this," he says. "There's nothing in it for people except pride in America."
Would he describe himself as the patriotic type? "Well," he says, pausing for a moment, "I would never have thought of myself as being a flagwaver."