It was always going to be a long shot, Craig Harmon’s effort to persuade the National Park Service and the White House to fly a massive Stars and Stripes from atop the Washington Monument on June 14, the 100th anniversary of the largest Flag Day celebration the capital ever witnessed.
I’ve written two columns about Craig, and while they garnered some support for his quixotic quest, a lot of people pooh-poohed the idea. The real problem was that no one in a position to actually make the event happen — to sign off on hoisting a gargantuan flag to the top of the 555-foot obelisk, to wrangle the president into delivering inspirational remarks — took the baton.
“Our plate is pretty full with the normal National Mall events, as well as planning for additional special ones for the [National Park Service] centennial, so we won’t be able to take on another one for Flag Day,” a National Park Service spokesman wrote in an email.
Craig, while disappointed, is taking it in stride.
“It’s just another missed opportunity, that’s all,” he told me on the phone. “It’s not the end of the world.”
And so Craig has changed gears. He has started writing to more than a dozen U.S. governors and the mayors of more than 200 towns and cities — including the District — to ask that they issue proclamations in honor of Flag Day and encourage fire chiefs from coast to coast to send flag-bedecked fire trucks down their Main Streets at noon on June 14.
Craig, 60, sure doesn’t make things easy on himself, especially when you consider that he starts chemotherapy Thursday to fight a recurrence of cancer.
“I’m in pain, but it’s the 100th anniversary” of Washington’s Flag Day event, he said. “You got to get through it. . . . From my standpoint, Flag Day’s more important than my health.”
Craig is doggedly old-fashioned when it comes to notions of patriotism. He’s also hard to stop. In 2000 he embarked on a two-year journey across the country at the wheel of a flag-bedecked 1964 firetruck. He followed the Lincoln Highway, the commemorative road linking New York City and San Francisco that was announced in 1913.
That’s why Craig is reaching out to only a handful of U.S. governors and not all 50. He founded the Lincoln Highway National Museum and Archives and is hoping to involve the states through which the road passes. (Pennsylvania Avenue in the District was a ceremonial “feeder” route to the highway.)
On Flag Day in 1916, communities all along the 3,400-mile length celebrated. Craig thinks it would be cool to do that again. He thinks fire departments are the key.
“Fire services are used to doing things PDQ,” he said. “They generally always have a flag. They have the firetruck with lights and sirens. It would be very easy at 12 noon to go out and do a flag-raising, hop in the truck and go down the street. Then you have an impromptu Flag Day parade.”
Flag Day has had its ups and downs over the decades. A Wisconsin schoolteacher named Bernard Cigrand is often credited with inventing the day in 1885, though Craig said it really got its start in 1861, with Jonathan Morris of Connecticut.
President Woodrow Wilson threw himself into Flag Day big time, establishing it as an official event and marching at the head of the 1916 parade in Washington. (That’s the year U.S. sailors were dispatched to raise a 38-by-60-foot flag to the top of the Washington Monument.)
Craig said that Warren Harding didn’t share Wilson’s ardor for Flag Day, believing the nearby Memorial Day and the Fourth of July were sufficient. During World War II, Franklin Roosevelt rejuvenated the holiday, broadening the concept to include World Flag Day, in which all allied nations would fly their own flags as well as those of the allies.
After the war, though, Flag Day atrophied. As historian Adam Goodheart put it in the New York Times in 2011, “For the 1960s generation, it became more or less the epitome of square: a vaguely embarrassing grade-school memory to be filed alongside duck-and-cover drills and mandatory prayers.”
Said Craig: “When you mention Flag Day today, people give you this dumb look: ‘What’s that?’ ”
It’s the day that harks back to June 14, 1777, when Congress established the nation’s flag, decreeing that it be “thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the Union be thirteen stars, white on a blue field, representing a new constellation.”
A new constellation. We don’t always achieve the promise inherent in those words, but it’s something we should strive for.
After spending the past 12 years in Washington, Craig is back home in Galion, Ohio, to receive chemo. It’s a town on the Lincoln Highway. I asked him what he’ll be doing on June 14.
“We have a 60-foot flag pole on the property here,” he said. “I run a big flag up.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.