Bombs bursting in air? Dangerous rockets whizzing around the night sky? This flag has endured so much worse. It has been soiled. It has been torn. It has mildewed. It has been shunted into obscurity. It even spent two years underneath the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in New York, living like a homeless person. This flag is officially called the Great American Flag, and it's the biggest American flag in history -- seven tons of polyester, stretching 411 feet by 210 feet, each star 13 feet wide, a banner so huge that a plan to hang it from the Washington Monument was scrapped because engineers said it might pull the monument over.
At 10:30 a.m. Friday, Flag Day, the ultimate flag of them all will be resurrected after seven years of darkness and dampness and a laundry job so difficult it was saved from disaster only by the U.S. Marines. The flag will be displayed near the Washington Monument -- flat on the ground -- amid much hoopla and festivities, but what will not be spoken of, except perhaps by allusion, is the flag's amazing, troubled, troublesome journey. It has been both inspiration and burden, an object of obsession and then neglect. Even in its renaissance this symbol of loyalty to country will have a bizarre subscript: one man's accusation of betrayal.
That man is Len Silverfine. He runs his own business in Vermont, named the Big Idea Co. None of his ideas has ever been bigger than this flag -- he conceived it, he helped make it, and he dragged it around the country for years. "It became a magnificent obsession," Silverfine says.
But he will not be in attendance Friday.
"I don't feel welcome, to tell you the truth," he said yesterday in a quiet, tragic voice. The experience of recent months has embittered him. He's happy the flag will see the glory of sunlight again. But he's furious at the way he says he's been treated. "It's been eating my heart out," he said.
Silverfine has been cut out of the Flag Day picture because of the laundering fiasco. He borrowed the flag this spring to clean it, and brought it back wet. Sopping. Smelly. Mildewing. That's why the Marines had to be called. And that's why the government got mad at him, and ordered him away from the flag he built.
But that's getting ahead of the story, which properly begins back in 1976. That year, Silverfine, a jack-of-all-trades in the communications business, decided to try to build a float for the Bicentennial parade in Warren, Vt. But he is a Big Idea guy and gradually his plan expanded, and soon he was running a project called the Great American Flag Fund, the goal nothing less than to create the world's largest flag. Silverfine figures that if you want to make a great symbol, it ought to be the biggest. Like the Statue of Liberty. That's big. There's a one-eighth-size copy in Paris, but no one cares about that, he says.
Silverfine's childhood friend, Kenneth Stein, says, "A lot of the things he might do or say might sound corny if they came from somebody else, but there's that ring you get from crystal if you hear it from him."
On June 28, 1976, after much laboring by 30 professional ironworkers, a 71,000-square-foot flag was draped from the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge across New York Harbor. The press was all over it. For Silverfine, it should have been a fabulous day.
But he had forgotten about one little thing. Wind.
The flag shredded in hours, on camera, a spectacular failure. "I was about as sad as I've ever been," he says.
In retrospect Silverfine regrets not thinking more about the concept of engineering. This big flag was just a big expanse of thin nylon, the equivalent of itty-bitty flags stitched together. And no one had ever thought about what would actually happen when the equivalent of a huge sail was hoisted onto the masts of a bridge. As it happened, it caused the top of one of the world's greatest bridges to sway in a discomforting manner.
Something good came out of the disaster, though. Thousands of people called the media and government agencies volunteering to stitch up that hapless flag. People cared! Silverfine was inspired. Next time he'd build a flag that would last. By 1980 he had managed to enlist Anchor Industries, an Evansville, Ind., tentmaker, and hundreds of volunteers to stitch together the new, improved Great American Flag, slightly taller than the original but about five times as heavy, built for endurance.
The flag fund, unfortunately, was pretty dry by this time. The world's biggest flag had no home. It would cost too much to hang it from the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. So the flag just sat on a trailer, folded up, a cargo of glory with no place to go. Silverfine managed to get enough interest in the flag to send it on a humble tour of the Eastern United States. In various cities the trailer would be pulled up next to a fire station and children would gather and watch. A corner of the flag would be pulled out, revealing a single massive star.
But was that enough? Not for a Big Idea kind of guy. He took the flag to Washington to be formally "dedicated." Naturally he went to the biggest thing around, the Washington Monument. On Flag Day, June 14, 1980, as a parade was about to begin, Silverfine attempted to unfurl the vast flag onto a protective fabric blanket on the ground. Alas, he and 15 ironworkers and 40 American Legionnaires, most of them World War I veterans, couldn't do the trick. It weighed too much. The military man running the Flag Day parade coldly told Silverfine that if the flag wasn't unfurled in time for the parade, it would start without him. Silverfine grabbed a bullhorn. He approached the Monument, where tourists, many of them elderly, were queued up. Help me, he said through the bullhorn. Help unfurl the Great American Flag! The tourists rushed forward and soon it was done.
That didn't solve the problem of what to do with the flag. For most of the next three years, thanks to a friend at the Triboro Bridge and Tunnel Authority, the flag was kept in the anchorage of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, secreted away underneath a river of traffic.
A couple of times the flag was trucked out to special events. It was laid next to the runway at Andrews Air Force Base when the American hostages returned home from Iran. And it was featured in a rally in Central Park, Silverfine scrambling to get talent to star in the show, nearly nabbing two space shuttle astronauts and winding up with Elizabeth Taylor only after she stipulated that the event be held late in the day, because, he recalls, "her doctor wanted her to sleep as late as possible."
Finally Silverfine & Co. decided to give the flag to President Reagan. He hoped it would be displayed every year. And cared for. There was a ceremony on Flag Day 1983. The Secret Service didn't want the president to leave the White House grounds, so there was a ceremony on the South Lawn while the flag lay over on the Ellipse, a flat object in the distance, an image no less powerful for being foreshortened.
"I promise you your government will keep it, and treasure it, and use it as a reminder of the greatness that is America," Reagan said in his speech.
People are always giving the president gifts. Usually it's something minor, of extremely momentary interest, like a T-shirt or a baseball cap, and after all the smiles are flashed for the photo op and the hands shaken with enthusiastic thanks the aforesaid article will then drift into remote government storage. The flag went off to a General Services Administration warehouse in Landover. It was largely forgotten by everyone but Len Silverfine.
Last June, he persuaded the Evansville Courier to write a story about this great symbol crammed into storage by the government. The story ran in several other papers and eventually Silverfine got the attention of Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana, the man who replaced Dan Quayle. Coats immediately took to the hugeness of the thing, and his office decided to sponsor an unveiling of the Great American Flag on June 14.
The senator enthused in a telephone interview: "We do things on a grand scale here. We dream big dreams."
He mentioned the big parade.
"Let's not just have four jets fly over, let's have 100 fly over! That same sense of, I guess, overwhelming overstatement is very typical of the American public, particularly in times of success," he said.
Earlier this year, an Evansville disc jockey, Johnny Kincaid, joined in the campaign to display the Great American Flag once again. Kincaid was pushing for a March exhibition, timed with the ending of the Persian Gulf War. The problem was that the flag was dirty. Silverfine managed to persuade an executive at Wilson Sporting Goods to have his workers clean the flag at a golf ball factory in Humboldt, Tenn.
But the General Services Administration was reluctant to turn the flag over to Silverfine. Kathryn Gaddy, GSA associate administrator for public affairs, who became the designated flag troubleshooter for the agency, said she was worried that the flag could be damaged. "We were very picky about who was going to be handling this thing," she said.
Silverfine was furious that GSA was so "possessive," as he puts it. Eventually he got the agency to go along with his plan.
On March 14, hundreds of white-jump-suited golf ball factory workers armed with sponges stuck on the ends of broomsticks meticulously scrubbed the flag in 38-degree weather. They left it out to dry. It did not. The weather remained cold and damp. Five days later, GSA hauled the flag back to Washington.
"It dripped the entire way back from Tennessee," said Gaddy. "It was sopping wet when it got here. It was mildewing and the smell would knock you over."
This was a job for the Marines. Richard Austin, the GSA administrator, is a former Marine himself, and along with Gaddy he went with the flag to the Marine base at Quantico, where it was spread out in the sun on a tarmac used for marching drills.
There was a tense meeting among Gaddy, Silverfine and the GSA general counsel. Gaddy told Silverfine that he would not be granted access to the flag again.
Silverfine sees a conspiracy of sorts: "Clearly there was, in my mind, an agenda operating here that has nothing to do with the facts. Suddenly flags were very popular, flags were the source of a lot of publicity, and that was something Kathryn Gaddy and Dick Austin didn't want to pass up on."
As Flag Day nears, the Silverfine Situation is one of those microcosmic background controversies that can strike any big cymbal-crashing event, be it a wedding or a parade or even a high school prom. Kenneth L. Stein, Silverfine's pal, faxed an angry letter yesterday to Sen. Coats:
"Now that the Flag is back in vogue, the bureaucrats are back on board, and Len has been shunted aside, almost as an embarrassment. ... When you smile in front of the cameras this Friday, think of Len, who, without recompense, selflessly gave fifteen years of his life to this project, naively believing in all those wonderful things for which the Great American Flag stands. Then look to your right and left, and observe all the sycophants. Without Len, the entire event is plainly indecent. Happy Flag Day."
Tim Goeglein, spokesman for Coats, said yesterday that Silverfine is "more than welcome" to attend Friday's ceremony. "There has been no attempt on the part of this office to cut Len out."
Stein, a New York lawyer, said in an interview yesterday that his wrath was directed at GSA, not Coats: "These guys monkeyed around with this thing and literally desecrated it for years. ... As soon as something else comes along they'll throw this thing back in a warehouse and forget about it."
Not true, says Gaddy. She has drawn up tighter restrictions for who can handle the flag and how. Gaddy says of Silverfine: "It's not as controversial as perhaps he's making it out to be. We're putting the flag out; we've already got arrangements for next year on Flag Day."
What happens down the road? At some point the flag might need a respectful destruction. Sen. Coats says the only problem there would be the size of the fire.
"That'd be some fire. We'd probably run afoul of the new clean air act that we just passed," the senator said.
For Len Silverfine, he has faint hopes that the flag will become an institution, something that doesn't get tucked away in corners but rather is a permanent part of the American psyche, that it might travel around the nation to small towns, that kids would write essays on What the Flag Means to Me, and if they won the essay contest they would get the honor of unfolding the flag. Somehow.