(Originally published in August 2011.)
I don’t remember the first time I saw him. I only know it was Memorial Day, Flag Day, Independence Day, 9-11, Labor Day or Veterans Day. Those are the days Mr. Art LaFlam stands on a busy bridge for 10-14 hours and waves the American flag with the passion of someone waving it atop an enemy hill.
His sacred spot is a concrete bridge over Interstate 81 near my home at the Woodstock, Va., exit. It’s both a tremendously scenic and busy freeway that runs north and south along Virginia’s western edge. If your goal was to be seen by as many passersby as possible and you lived in the quiet Shenandoah Valley, this is exactly where you’d come.
On those six holidays – plus a day or two before or after, depending on the day of the week the holiday falls – Art stakes his spot on that concrete bridge. (Last year he spent 17 days there.)
Rain, shine, cold and blistering heat, it makes no difference. The flag and the mission are simply too important.
If the flag lays claims to one half of Art’s heart, his dear wife Joanne claims the other. What a sweet slice of irony that once a year his two great loves share an anniversary. Art married his precious wife, Joanne, 42 years ago on Flag Day.
So, how did he get here?
As a young man, Art served three tours in Vietnam and returned to his home in New Hampshire with honor, a collection of medals and a love for the American flag. But he was disappointed to find how few of us flew the flag that he and his band of brothers – past, present and future – defended.
His spirit nudged him to action; it was time to put his love of the flag on display. He went to busy public points of interest and proudly waved the flag with the passion of a hundred men. It became a part of him, a part of his identity and a reflection of his American-sized heart.
Twenty years later he moved with his sweetheart to the Shenandoah Valley and yearned to continue the tradition. Easy, right? Wrong.
Finding a spot to stand and wave the flag in this conservative-leaning county was a tougher challenge than he ever expected. Law enforcement chased him away from prime locations at one end of the county to another.
I would have given up. Maybe you, too, would have folded your flag.
Not Art LaFlam.
Art pressed on until a friend and retired police officer suggested he try the bridge. His life, and the lives of the countless people who’ve seen him since, have never been the same.
My friend no longer worries about being chased off. In fact, officers check on him throughout the day offering hellos and the occasional cold bottle of water. As a courtesy, and because he respects those in uniform, he calls or visits the chief of police before every trip to the bridge.
Often people offer a drink, a donut, a candy bar or the simple words, “Is there anything you need?” Art says these offers always come just when he needs them most. Coincidence?
Sometimes a motorist pulls over and, after just a few minutes of conversation, they catch the fever. That’s easy to do with a man like Art. As they leave, they promise to return someday and wave Old Glory alongside him.
Whether they do or not, Art knows he’s never really alone. He truly believes there are angels surrounding him. Some he can see, others he can only feel, but their presence is undeniable.
I’m embarrassed that I’d seen Art many times on the bridge, but until this past Independence Day, I’d never taken the time to stop. This year the holiday fell on a Monday, and that meant Art spent Saturday, Sunday and the Fourth waving his flag and sharing smiles from the spot that knows his boots well.
My family was honored to join him for a short time in the cool morning hours. It’s awe-inspiring that thousands and thousands of complete strangers wave, salute or honk their horns as they pass by. It could squeeze tears from the hardest of hearts.
We can’t wait to repeat the memory. On Labor Day, we’ll gather up the gang and join Art back on the bridge. If you find yourself nearby, come stand with us. Or, if you’re across the country, join us anyway by flying the flag that unites every single one of us over miles, mountains and rivers.
If nothing else, the next time you see a flag, ask yourself how far you would go to defend it, to display it, to stand on a bridge and to wave it.
But you don’t need to ask yourself if you’ve ever met someone who would die for it.
You have now.
His name is Art LaFlam.