Star-Spangled field of dreams

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BRATTLEBORO >> Mike Finnell has seen the film "Field of Dreams," in which the hero, spurred by a whisper, envisions a stadium-size baseball diamond in his small-town backyard. But the 68-year-old cites a more gut-level inspiration for wanting to grab hold of another big American symbol: the largest parade flag in Vermont.

Finnell rewinds back a dozen years to when, as former exalted ruler of Brattleboro's Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks Lodge #1499, he heard about a community — the particular one escapes him — where residents mark holidays by marching along Main Street with a 20-foot by 38-foot American flag.

If this was a movie, Finnell and friends would now be pictured stitching bolt upon bolt of weather-resistant polyester into their own modern-day Star-Spangled Banner. In reality, he instead ordered one online "if my memory serves me right" for $800.

The average flag measures 3 feet by 5 feet. The 38-pound package the mailman delivered contained the equivalent of more than 50 front-porch pennants sewn together.

"You want to be careful a flag doesn't touch the ground," Finnell says.

That's why the Elks must corral 30 people to don white gloves (the local lodge has 100 pairs) and devote up to 10 minutes to unfolding the tight triangle of fabric with soldier-like attention.

Members are set to march through town Monday at 10 a.m. during the 43rd annual Fourth of July parade, leading some 50 units — including the Brattleboro American Legion and Brattleboro Union High School bands, veterans, civic and youth groups — along Canal and Main streets to the Common. They'll then pass the banner to their peers in Bennington for Battle Day festivities on Aug. 14.

"We let other lodges throughout the state use it for special occasions."

Other groups, too. The Elks have paraded the flag at recent Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl fundraising football games.

"People were throwing money on it," Finnell recalls. "The change started to build up, and we had to stop."

(But only after collecting $318.90 for charity.)

Pennies are an easier problem than other things that fall from heaven.

"When the wind blows, everything goes up and down," Finnell says. "And it holds water, so if it starts to rain you have to tip it, then find a place where it can sit for a couple of days until it dries out."

The Elks flag may be the biggest paraded in Vermont, but it has competition: The world's largest free-flying Old Glory — a holiday staple on the George Washington Bridge connecting New York and New Jersey — spans 60 feet by 90 feet, or the size of a basketball court.

Such comparisons don't decrease Finnell's appreciation for his flag.

"When you start down the street, people salute and applaud. It makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. It's just a real good feeling."

That said, he's careful to stress the real star of the show.

"It's nice to stand there and wave, but you can't forget what you're carrying. You've got to love this country, and that's what the flag represents."

Kevin O'Connor is a Reformer contributor and VTDigger.org correspondent who can be contacted at kevinoconnorvt@gmail.com.


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