By Hiroko Sato
John Moak stares at the gallery of trees sprinkled with red, white and blue while driving on Route 113 toward Dunstable and Pepperell every morning and utters to himself: "Oh, yeah."
The star spangled banners dancing in the wind on utility poles remind the Pepperell town administrator of what makes the community special. The flags represent the residents' care and respect for those who defend the country, Moak said.
Remember, said Carol Gates, every one of the names on the "living tribute" sign at the Pepperell town common that lists local soldiers in active duty is someone's son or daughter. That's why donations flooded in last year when Pepperell Fourth of July Committee, for which Gates serves as the president, asked for the community's help for replacing 50 of the flags.
"It's to make sure those kids are not forgotten. (The flags) are a reminder that we are thinking about those guys every single day," Gates said.
The colors of Old Glory are in full display again across the region from Dunstable to Pepperell to Townsend. When Memorial Day approaches every year, residents pull flags out of storage and put them up, signaling the arrival of summer. They stay up on the utility poles through the Fourth of July before reappearing for Veterans Day in most towns, though Boy Scouts of America Troop 3 in Groton, which puts up the flags on Main Street, takes them down after each holiday, following the rule of lowering the flag by sunset.
The visual display of patriotism has been so important to people in Pepperell that delaying it by two days due to the weather just before the holiday this year prompted people to pick up the phone and complain, Gates said.
"We take the flags seriously. We don't mess around with the flags," Gates said.
Pepperell has displayed the flags as long as Gates can remember. Located 10 miles outside Devens, the town was home to countless troops before the Army post closed in 1996. The desire to serve runs deep in the region that has produced generations of soldiers, said Gates, whose son, brother, nephew and niece have all been in the military. Around this time last year, there were more than 60 local residents serving in the military, according to Gates.
After retiring the 50 damaged flags last winter, the Fourth of July Committee decided to ask residents for help to cut the stars out and make tokens that troops stopping by Pease Air National Guard Base in Portsmouth, N.H., can take with them.
"I didn't have enough flags for the amount of people who wanted to volunteer," Gates said.
The display of the flags is part of the "phenomenal" support people have shown for local troops and their families over the years, from sending care packages to singing Christmas carols in front of soldiers' homes.
"It's really a down-home feeling," Moak said of the flags.
The Boy Scouts in Groton see flying of the flags as their duty to their community and to the country. In some communities, companies like Charter Communications volunteer the labor and use of their bucket trucks for flag installations on utility poles. But, members of Groton Scout Troops 1 and 3, which take care of Main Street and West Groton respectively, ground-mount the flags attached to 7-foot poles before going to school in the morning, said Troop 1 Scout Master Tom Fitzpatrick.
In Groton, Patriots Day is the first time they display the flags each year and brings them back out on specific holidays, ranging from Fourth of July to Sept. 11. The flags should give those driving by the main roads "a little more to think about" on the meaning of those holidays, Fitzpatrick said.