On the morning of Veterans Day, those who are new to Oak Harbor might notice with surprise the hundreds of American flags lining up the sidewalks that seemingly appear out of nowhere and disappear as mysteriously by sunset.
As part of a decades-long tradition, the streets of this military town have been flaunting their patriotic flair wearing red, white and blue in honor of 12 holidays that are most dear to Americans, like Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Memorial Day and Pearl Harbor Day.
Before sunrise, four teams of Oak Harbor Lions Club members meet at the club’s storage building to load hundreds of American flags on their trucks. Then they depart, scanning the sidewalks in search of holes in the concrete that are marked by white spray paint where they will place each flag. As the sky gets darker, the flags begin to disappear one by one, returning to their home where they will wait for the next holiday.
Among these silent decorators are Tom Bond and Doug Jerome, two Lions Club members who, through the club, have been giving back to the community and Whidbey’s base for the past three decades after a career in the military.
Bond and Jerome grew up respectively in Virginia and Illinois, but have found their home in Oak Harbor, where they served on the base. Jerome was a naval flight officer, while Bond was a marine in charge of aircraft maintenance.
According to Bond and Jerome, the tradition of the flag began in the 1960s by initiative of Club Chairman Ed Seagull — nicknamed “Bugsy.” For years, the club has been decorating the streets with flags, but the two members said many residents believe the project is run by the City of Oak Harbor. Nevertheless, their efforts have been gaining community support and appreciation over time,
“When people stop you and thank you for putting them out, it feels really good,” Bond said. “We don’t want a reward for it but sometimes a pat on the back is like a $10 bill.”
Anyone can help, Bond and Jerome said. Business owners who are interested in having their flag wave in front of their stores on the holidays can support the club by paying $35 for a flag or $25 for each flag in a bundle. The funds will go towards club initiatives to support the community.
Jerome and Bond said local businesses seem to take the tradition very seriously, with some business owners seemingly competing over who displays the most flags. The project has also gained the attention of other clubs on the island and beyond, with cities like Anacortes taking inspiration for its own flag tradition, they said.
Despite the fact many flags have been stolen or damaged, the Oak Harbor Lions Club is determined to continue this legacy. When a flag is damaged, the scouts will burn it as part of a dignifying ceremony, known as retiring the flag.