It sounds like the very definition of a logistical nightmare: organizing 4,000 schoolchildren into a human flag at Fort McHenry.
Add to that the threat of rain that kept some schools away and a cold blustery wind blowing off the water and chilling those who came, and the organizers of the annual Living Flag Ceremony had a few nervous moments yesterday.
"We're going to have to shorten the flag," said Brad Bradford of the National Flag Day Foundation, which organized the event. The event is usually held in late May, but it was moved up, primarily to accommodate school schedules.
Mr. Bradford surveyed the field, holding a diagram of the flag in his hand, basically a grid with 4,290 spaces. "I know we're not going to have 4,290 children, because of the weather," he said.
But he was not about to let an abbreviated flag spoil the spirit of the day. "When you think of Los Angeles and some of the problems, and see black, white and yellow faces, in a show of national unity and in the flag, I think it's fantastic," he said.
Indeed, the flag did come up a few grid spaces short, but the rain held off and the program went on, even if rushed somewhat because of the cold. The only other problem was the traffic jam on Fort Avenue caused by a procession of 67 school buses.
Once the excited children got off the buses, they were shuttled into a walkway marked by orange cones. Volunteers, aided by teachers, quickly directed them down rows marked off for the stripes to their places on one of the 4,290 squares spray-painted on the grass.
Each child received a red, white or blue piece of poster board, depending on where in the flag he or she was standing.
"You get a red. You get a white. Red, White. Red, White," said teacher Shannon Williams, directing his fifth-grade students from Madison Square Elementary School in East Baltimore alternately into two lines, one for a red stripe and the other for a white stripe.
He hurried them along, barking out orders with the authority of a drill sergeant.
"Come on son! Come on honey, wake up," he called out.
Mr. Williams had emphasized the historical importance of the fort in lessons he taught before the big day. "Many of them have never seen Fort McHenry before, so it's going to be quite an experience for them," he said.
But what seemed to interest most of the youngsters was being on television. It quickly occurred to them how difficult it was going to be to find themselves in the mass of red, white and blue cards.
Except, that is, for Michael Ross, a fifth-grader from Carter G. Woodson Elementary School in Cherry Hill, who perhaps had the prime spot in the flag for spotting himself on the evening news: the lower left corner. He said he was originally hoping to be one of the stars. "The star is the first thing you see," he said.
But his school was the first to arrive and Michael found himself first in line. "When we were walking down here, some people were slowing down and I just got in front of them," he said.
The Living Flag Ceremony was started in 1984 in recognition of the human flag created by Baltimore students in 1914 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the bombardment of Fort McHenry and the composition of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Yesterday's ceremony commemorated the 100th anniversary of the writing of the Pledge of Allegiance by Francis Bellamy.
The cold weather was making the children uncomfortable and organizers decided to rush the program and go right to the forming the flag. The children were directed from the stage to hold up their cards and do the "wave" several times. They were told to jump up and down, shrieking at the top of their lungs, to create an effect for the cameras in two helicopters circling above.
"Now I've heard them talk about letting freedom ring," Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke told them. "But I've never heard freedom scream until today."
A procession of public officials followed, who were generally ignored by the increasingly restless crowd. But they belted out the grand finale, the Pledge of Allegiance. They all turned, hands over their hearts, and faced the fort with its 15-starred flag whipping in the wind.
"That's the flag, the old one, when it only had 15 stars on it," observed Timmy Johnston, a third-grader at Armistead Gardens Elementary School.
But his classmate, Timothy Clark, was unimpressed: "Don't they have a flag with 50 stars on it?"