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.
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.
“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.
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!
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”!