Sharon Springs firefighter Tristan Lynk held down 600 square feet of tattered American flag with a solemn grip on a white-braided anchor rope.
He looked up across the expanse of smoke-stained cloth to the fire engine ladder from which it hung, cringing as gusts of wind tugged at the brittle fibers.
“It’s sort of fragile,” he said. “I hope it doesn’t rip on my watch.”
Lynk had reason to worry. It’s an important flag.
The National 9/11 Flag was displayed Sunday afternoon in front of Sharon Springs Central School. At first glance it looked like a ragged, if incredibly large, piece of patchwork. Admittedly, the thing has never been washed, so the white stars and stripes are more of a sepia tone. The red and blue are a collage of different shades, but there was real awe and a few tears in the eyes of roughly 100 people.
“It’s just a real honor to have the flag here,” said Sharon Springs Fire Chief Greg Baxter. “I’m blown away.”
After New York City firefighter Jimmy Sands gave an account of the flag’s history, all the emotion made sense.
Sands said the flag was hung from 90 West St., just south of the smoldering Twin Towers the day after they fell. At the time it was a statement of resilience, but after weeks of smoke and settling debris it was taken down in pieces and folded away in a storage shed.
Help in the heartland
In 2008 the flag ended up in Greensburg, Kansas, with the New York Says Thank You volunteer tour. While the New Yorkers helped clean up ruined homes tossed about by a major tornado, area seamstresses got ahold of the flag.
“A bunch of little old ladies stitched what was left of it onto cotton backing,” Sands said, “but it was still just bits and pieces. You can’t leave a flag like that.”
Sands personally escorted the flag all over the country after the initial work in Greensburg. He witnessed the son and daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. patch over ruined sections of the flag in Georgia and Pearl Harbor survivors break out the red and blue thread on the decks of the USS Missouri. Sands even recounted sprinting through Chicago with the folded flag hefted like a 56-pound child over his shoulder, hoping to make his flight to a serviceman’s funeral.
The fully re-stitched flag hung Sunday afternoon as a symbol of the nation’s ability to come back from disaster. It was a particularly powerful message for the residents of Sharon Springs, a community still recovering from tropical storms Irene and Lee.
“Just like this flag was stitched back together,” said Schoharie Area Long Term Executive Director Sarah Goodrich, “this county is still working to stitch itself back together.”
As Sands directed 50 or 60 people in the complex team effort of folding the flag, Donna Olsen stood by with moist eyes.
She told of how the community pulled together after the floods, and how New York City firefighters drove up to help.
“We’re a small community,” she said, “and we take care of our own. I guess the whole country is that way.”
A village effort
Village residents lined the edges of the flag, easing it down from the fire engine ladder. Baxter supported the very center in a posture reminiscent of Atlas, keeping it off the ground.
Under Sands’ direction they turned it triangle by triangle into the traditional tight bundle. Lynk looked relieved. He chatted with fellow firefighter Matt Jonker, who had held down the flag’s opposite corner.
About half way through Sands’ talk, Jonker said he heard the cloth starting to tear. He called a few other volunteers over to steady the bottom and counteract the wind.
Even after flag was carefully stowed in a custom triangular bag and under Sands’ care, the two young firefighters seemed surprised they had been trusted with the historic object. They were surprised it even showed up in their small community.
“It was an honor,” Lynk said.