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    Welcome to the Ambassablog! We're the front-line employee bloggers of the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority and participants in the Airport Authority's Goodwill Ambassador Program.

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O, Say Can You Fly … to BWI?

Some fellow visitors graciously offered to take this picture of me hoisting Old Glory at Fort McHenry - a memento I’ll treasure for the rest of my life.

Regular readers of this blog know that the largest airline by flight and passenger volume at SDIA is Southwest Airlines. But did you know that it has only one non-stop East Coast destination from our airport? The furthest east you can go non-stop with Southwest from San Diego is to Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI), roughly a half-hour train ride from our nation’s capital. I recently took the coast-to-coast, five-hour flight to BWI for my first visit ever to Washington, D.C. to see the monuments and museums of America’s heritage.

A shot of the main terminal

Main Terminal at BWI. (Image via Wikipedia.)

One of the most moving experiences of my trip was seeing the original Star-Spangled Banner in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. In case you need a history refresher, our national anthem has its origins in the War of 1812, a “Second War of Independence” which is hardly remembered nearly 200 years later. Our young nation then fought our former colonial ruler, and the British dealt a serious blow to America when its troops sacked the District of Columbia. They burned the White House, the Capitol, and the Library of Congress, forcing American troops to make a decisive stand at Fort McHenry in Baltimore.

Baltimore was then our nation’s third-largest city, and at the head of the Chesapeake Bay it was a port of substantial commerce whose wharves and warehouses the British coveted. On September 13, 1814, the attack came on Fort McHenry, and the Americans dug in, surviving an onslaught of bombardments for 25 solid hours. As the morning sun rose on the 14th, our flag still flew proudly from the fort’s mast, a 30-foot by 42-foot ensign that defiantly waved as weary British forces retreated.

The caption reads "A VIEW of the BOMBARDM...

A VIEW of the BOMBARDMENT of Fort McHenry, near Baltimore, by the British fleet. (Image via Wikipedia.)

“By the dawn’s early light,” a lawyer named Francis Scott Key was being held aboard a British ship, trying to negotiate a release of American prisoners. When he saw the Star-Spangled Banner “ever yet wave” that morning, he was inspired to compose a poem commemorating the American victory. It was an immediate hit, published throughout the country and set to music, eventually becoming our national anthem.

The 15-star, 15-stripe

Early historical photo of the original 'Star-Spangled Banner' which inspired Francis Scott Key, from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division in Washington, D.C. (Image via Wikipedia.)

As fortune would have it, the original flag that served as Key’s muse at Fort McHenry has been restored and rests on display in Washington, D.C. Made by Mary Pickersgill with her family and a servant, it has proven resilient though fragile. So popular was the flag in the 19th century that clippings were made from it as souvenirs, reducing its size and costing it one of its stars. There were 15 stars—and 15 stripes—on the flag, one for each of the states which comprised the Union at that time: the 13 original states plus Vermont and Kentucky. (It was only later decided to keep the flag’s stripes at 13 and instead add only stars for each new state’s admission – to make the 50 stars we now know.)

Seeing the original Star-Spangled Banner inspired me to see Fort McHenry in Baltimore, too, so before I returned home from BWI, I drove the short distance from the airport. Even today Baltimore Harbor is a hotbed of commercial activity, with industrial buildings and container ships framing the scene. From the massive earthen defenses of the fort and the cannonade aimed out into the bay, one can imagine the valiant stand America made with our massive flag flying as a rallying symbol against British might.

A large 15-star and 15-stripe flag still waves proudly from the fort, and the exhibits include Key’s original manuscript with strikeout editing. A stirringly narrated film at the visitor center leaves nary a dry eye in the room, swelling viewers with pride in our troops’ courageous stand. It culminates dramatically in a screen lifting to reveal the flag flying in the fort courtyard, as a rousing rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” plays. I know that I will never feel the same way again in hearing our national anthem; never have I felt more proud to be an American!

Aerial view of the star-shaped Fort McHenry. (Image via National Park Service.)

So inspired was I by my visit that I bought a flag at the gift shop (they sell both the current 50-star flag as well as the 1814 version that flies at the fort). As if acquiring that keepsake alone was not enough, they offer to fly it at the fort and give you a hand-signed certificate commemorating it! My eyes lit up in childlike wonder … how could I refuse that kind of opportunity?

I walked reverently out to the flag mast with the park ranger escort, who insisted that I clip on the flag and hoist it up myself. Some visitors at that moment felt the same patriotic pride and graciously offered to take my camera and photograph the event. Now I have a memento that I’ll treasure for the rest of my life.

So if you’ve ever wondered about whether there’s anything worth seeing in Baltimore, wonder no more.  And, courtesy of Southwest Airlines, you can make it there non-stop from SDIA. If you visit, you just might come back to the West Coast with a heaping helping of American pride “that our flag was still there”!

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5 Responses

  1. Need to brush up on the War of 1812 for its coming bicentennial? At Fort McHenry, I got a fascinating popular-history read summing up the causes of the conflict and its major battles on land and sea called “1812: The War That Forged a Nation” by Walter R. Borneman. It may not be ripe for an Authority Book Club (http://goodwillambassablog.wordpress.com/2011/03/07/a-bounty-of-books/) selection, but it offers the full stories behind all those snippets you vaguely recall from school: Tippecanoe, Zebulon Pike (of Colorado Peak’s fame), Old Ironsides, “Don’t Give Up the Ship”, “We have met the enemy and they are ours”, and more.

  2. Great posting to the blog. Made me want to catch the next Southwest flight to Baltimore.

  3. An aside–and challenge: While the 1814 U.S. flag indeed had 15 stars and 15 stripes, there were actually 18 states forming the Union at that time: the 15 indicated above plus Tennessee, Ohio, and Louisiana. Yet the flag’s stars and stripes remained frozen at 15 after Kentucky’s 1792 statehood until 1818, when the starcount jumped to 20 to include all states admitted to the Union to that point–and at which time the stripes were permanently frozen at 13 for the thirteen original states. Why the starcount wasn’t expanded in the interim is something I haven’t been able to find out the reason. Do you know? If so, please share here with everyone to learn. Thanks!

  4. This is the best post I’ve read. It hit home.

  5. Ed, I’m so glad you made it to Baltimore during your trip to the area. I was just telling your story to a client today who said he was going to buy a ‘framed’ vintage flag at Crate & Barrel or Room & Board. I said he should run up to the Fort and get his own flag, just like my friend did during his recent trip to DC. I’ll have to send him this link to your blog post. Be well.

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