It may have been a high school prank or a sudden, irrepressible surge of patriotism. Why else, on July 4, would someone steal 45 American flags suspended from utility poles in Gaithersburg?

At the twilight's last gleaming, and through the red glare of the annual fireworks display at the Montgomery County Fairground, 250 flags waved through the streets of the city. But, by the dawn's early light of July 5, Gaithersburg police said yesterday, chagrined city officials realized that several of the three-by-five-foot flags had been stolen from atop utility poles.

Most of the 45 were stolen on July 4, but still more of the high-flying flags were scurried away "It is just a case of us being in the wrong place at the wrong time."

-- Police Chief Mary Ann Troutner

throughout the holiday weekend, according to police.

The Barber-Briggs Post 104 of the American Legion came to the city's aid yesterday, presenting the mayor a check for $525 to buy 50 new flags.

The flags, ordered hung by city officials for the July 4 weekend, were intended to promote patriotism and pride as the kickoff of a tradition the city plans to observe on each major holiday. David Humpton, assistant to the city manager, said it was supposed to be "a feel good" activity.

City officials, police and residents were shocked by the crime. As yet, police have no suspects and can only speculate on the motive.

"It had to be a prank, why else?" said Police Chief Mary Ann Troutner. She said both city and county police were patrolling the streets at the time of the thefts.

While Troutner said it does seem "like quite a time-consuming task" to steal 45 flags -- all hung an estimated 15 feet from the ground -- "it is just a case of us being in the wrong place at the wrong time."