American Legion's flag unit keeps history, tradition alive

On the Fourth of July, John Calvert will arrive at Dewey Lowman American Legion Post 109 about 7:30 a.m. to help raise 44 American flags along the post's driveway off Sulphur Spring Road.

The flags will be up from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m.

It makes him proud to see the flags waving in the breeze.

"It's something to see the Old Glory flying up there in the morning," Calvert said. "It's breathtaking, after we put them all up, to see all 44 of them flying."

While the 44 flags are a sight to see — Calvert, 65, does not have an explanation as to why it's 44 — there's another number, when it comes to flags, that has a special place in his heart: 27.

When he first joined the American Legion seven years ago, it wasn't a significant figure to him, but he quickly learned that 27 represents the versions of the American flag that have existed throughout the nation's history.

The flag first started with 13 stars, representing the 13 colonies. A second version, in use from 1795-1818, had 15 stars — the additional two stars representing Vermont and Kentucky.

In 1818, Congress approved a plan that would add a new star to the flag when each new state was admitted, with the design changing on the following July 4. The most recent change was made in 1960, after Hawaii became a state.

It has now become Calvert's mission to spread the word. Many people don't know about the flag's history, he said.

"If I can tell anybody today what's going on in the past, and they can grasp it, that's part of being a patriot," he said.

Pat Perluke, executive vice president of the Riderwood, Maryland-based American Flag Foundation, said many people aren't aware that there were 27 versions of the American flag.

It's not for a lack of wanting to know, she said. Her organization hosts programs in Maryland schools and the students there are well prepared to talk about the flag, patriotism and the Pledge of Allegiance, she said.

When she sees schools no longer recite the pledge on a daily basis or gentlemen fail to take off their hats at sporting events during the singing of the National Anthem, she knows times have changed.

"It's generational," she said. "But the American flag, to many, does not play as significant a role as it did at one time."

Calvert, a plumber by trade who served 28 years in the U.S. Navy, is in his third year as the director of The Original 27 Flags, a marching unit formed in 1975 by the American Legion in Halethorpe. The group is said to be the first of its kind.

The group has two goals: to participate in patriotic functions and to educate the public about the history of the American flag.

The post owns a copy of each version of the flag that has flown over the United States, and its members fly them during parades and functions in Arbutus and beyond. In addition to the parades, the group will visit schools and senior centers to show the flags and discuss its history.

They've been in presidential inauguration parades — Jimmy Carter's and Bill Clinton's — the parade in Baltimore when Pope John Paul II visited in 1995, and countless St. Patrick's Day, Preakness, Memorial Day and July 4 parades.

In the group's earlydays, members could be found wearing their distinctive blue blazers. Today's uniform is a polo shirt, baseball cap, navy blue trousers, white gloves and black shoes. When it's cold, the members don a red jacket.

As membership in the group declined and aged — there are now about a dozen active members, Calvert said — the group stopped marching and now uses a custom-made trailer. The flags go in slots that line the trailer and members sit on benches and wave to the crowds.

The Arbutus July 4 parade is an event members look forward to.It's one of two parades — along with Catonsville's parade — the group will take part in that day.

Jim Sullivan, who has been a member of the group for 27 years, is eager to see those watching the parade to stand up and salute the flag.

"When we see the people in the events and we come by, they really stand up and announce how much they know Dewey Lowman and how proud they are to see our flags flying around," he said.

Dewey Lowman, the namesake of the post, was a seaman from Arbutus who was aboard the U.S.S. Cyclops when the ship was lost at sea in 1918 in the area of the Bermuda Triangle.

Bob Haney joined the post 18 years ago in part because of the group. He typically drives the jeep that tows the float. For him, the role is a win-win. He gets to show off the flags, and also enjoy a dry, air-conditioned ride along the parade route.

"It's Small Town U.S.A.," he said. "The Arbutus Parade? Come on. It's the best thing in the world."

IF YOU GO

Arbutus July 4 parade

When: 12:30 p.m. Monday, July 4

Where: Along Oregon Avenue starting at Elm Road and East Drive to the shopping center, Arbutus

Call: 410-242-1143

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