Stand on almost any street corner in Washington and odds are you will be able to see an American flag. In certain places — along Embassy Row, inside the Kennedy Center, hanging from a cabby’s rearview mirror — you can spot foreign flags, too.
Washington is a city of banners snapping in the breeze. But nowhere can you see the variety of flags that Chris Bedwell flies from his house in the 1700 block of Seaton Street NW: a different flag every day, taken from his collection of more than 600. It’s a collection that takes up two closets, each flag neatly clipped to a shower curtain ring and hung from rods.
“I do find it interesting that of all the different people that there are in this world, and all the different cultures, flags are a fairly universal way of expressing ideals and customs,” Chris said. “And whatever things that flag represents is what they find important. I’ve not known a flag that’s good or bad that didn’t inspire some kind of passion. Like the current Libyan flag. It’s just a plain green piece of cloth that symbolizes Islam. But right now. . . . ”
Right now, wave the wrong Libyan flag in Libya and you’ll wind up on the exploding end of a rocket-propelled grenade.
A few months ago, a Libyan American businessman from around the corner asked Chris whether he had in his collection the old Libyan flag, the one that has become a symbol for the rebels. The man wanted to wave it in front of the Libyan Embassy. Chris does not. He does, however, have a Libyan flag from a time when Moammar Gaddafi was trying unsuccessfully to create a pan-Arab union and went so far as to design flags for each member state. It’s a flag for a country that never was.
Chris also has flags for countries that are no longer. Perhaps because he’s a municipal worker, employed by the city of Alexandria, he has an affection for flags of municipalities, from Dayton, Ohio, to North Pole, Alaska. Some of his flags, like a handsewn flag of Saudi Arabia, are as big as a beach blanket. Most are about 3-by-5 feet, perfect for hanging from the pole that juts from the Adams Morgan rowhouse he bought in 1995.
What Chris does not have are any of the flags that have been driving the flag industry lately: ducks wearing bonnets, smiling jack-o’-lanterns, leprechauns. “They don’t interest me,” he said. “They kind of stand for something — Snoopy with an Easter egg stands for Easter — [but] it’s just a decoration.”
Yet there’s no denying that national flags can be decorative. As a boy, Chris would sit in his Fairfax County home, the World Book Encyclopedia’s “F” volume open on his lap, scrutinizing the flags of the world.
“I would try to draw them,” he said. “I guess it was the color that got me interested in it. I was never very good with my drawing, so I tried to stick with the simple flags.”
Few are simpler than the District’s flag: two red bars, three red stars. In vexillological circles (that’s the study of flags), it’s seen as a good design. The Virginia state flag is seen as a bad one. Maryland’s is somewhere in between.
Chris picks his daily flag with care. On Easter he might fly the flag of Easter Island, on Thanksgiving, the flag of Turkey. In the two weeks leading up to May Day he might fly the flags of the various Soviet republics, culminating in the hammer and sickle of the USSR on May 1. Today — Flag Day — it will be the Stars and Stripes.
I asked Chris what would he put on his own flag, if he could design it.
“Probably a flag,” he said.
For a video tour of Chris Bedwell’s flag collection, visit www.washingtonpost.com/local.
My recent column about how Camp Moss Hollow was carved out of the Fauquier County woods resonated with George Thorne. Originally from Southwest, he started going to Moss Hollow in the late 1960s. “It was an experience I’ll never forget,” he said.
George wants to challenge everybody who ever went to Moss Hollow to do as he’s doing and donate $25. You can contribute to Camp Moss Hollow at www.washingtonpost. com/camp. Or mail a check payable to “Send a Kid to Camp” to Send a Kid to Camp, P.O. Box 96237, Washington, D.C. 20090-6237.