Brian Tolstyka stood at the edge of a giant American flag spread across several tables in the Veterans Affairs hospital gym. Wearing a leather vest with a flag patch and a hat with a flag pin, Tolstyka was about to stitch his place in history.
Gently clasping a threaded needle between thumb and forefinger, Tolstyka, 43, slipped it into the fabric of a red stripe. The 300 people in the West Virginia gym clapped. The Gulf War veteran felt a lump in his throat.
The 30-foot flag flew from a half-destroyed building across from ground zero in New York in those dark days after Sept. 11 — its stripes torn and tattered by debris from the fallen World Trade Center. In 2008, it was mended by 58 tornado survivors in Kansas with remnants of flags from their communities. Dubbed the National 9/11 Flag, it's been traveling the country ever since — a journey for the country's most recognizable symbol that has brought most Americans along, uniting more people in a post-9/11 world than it has divided in other times.
Within hours of the attacks, flags seemed to be everywhere: car windows, T-shirts, front porches. Wal-Mart sold 5 million by the spring of 2002.
Tolstyka, who served in the Army and organizes memorial motorcycle rides for veterans, went out and bought a flag for his car antenna a few days after Sept. 11. "It was a symbol," he says, "of support."
It was also a show of defiance against the terrorists, a rallying cry of unity and a soothing security blanket for a wounded nation.
"Every time there's some kind of national emergency, we put up flags," says Carolyn Marvin, a professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania. "The flag represents the life of the country."
The Stars and Stripes hasn't always been as feel-good a symbol, depending on the decade and the politics. Defaced by Vietnam War protesters in the 1960s, invoked by politicians on both sides of debates about war and American values and burned by anti-American protesters overseas, it's been alternately reviled and revered.
Few Americans flew the flag outside of homes or businesses in the first few decades of its existence, says Marc Leepson, who wrote a book called "Flag: An American Biography."
But on April 12, 1861, when Confederates fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston, "flags started appearing almost overnight," he says. Women wore them in hats, men put them in wagons."
'Warranted not to run'
Leepson discovered an advertisement in a copy of a New York newspaper that was published just after the Fort Sumter attack. It mentioned a paint shop that advertised red, white and blue paints, and touted: "These colors are warranted not to run."
After Sept. 11, 2001, the flag took on a larger-than-life symbolism and brought that unity to a grieving country. Bumper stickers with images of the flag and phrases like "these colors don't run" became commonplace in parts of the U.S.
A New Jersey photographer snapped a photo of three city firefighters raising a flag on the ruined trade center site in an image that instantly was compared to the 1945 photo of U.S. Marines raising the U.S. flag at Iwo Jima. Flags spearheaded a patriotic buying boom, appearing outside homes, on office buildings, mugs and pins.
Country Singer Toby Keith wrote "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue" one week after Sept. 11. The song led with Americans saluting the flag and described wreaking vengeance upon the country's enemies:
"When you hear Mother Freedom start ringing her bell/And it'll feel like the whole wide world is raining down on you/Ah, brought to you, courtesy of the red, white and blue."
In December of 2001, Congress designated Sept. 11 as "Patriot Day" to honor those lost during the attacks — and mandated that all flags should be flown at half-staff each year on that day.
Nearly a decade later, flags aren't hanging from every front porch anymore, but they fill many American blocks, and thousands follow the touring flags to touch something that connects them to Sept. 11.
For West Virginia's Tolstyka, the national flag in Martinsburg — a small city straddling three states in West Virginia's lush green panhandle — directly to ground zero in New York and the attack that tore it shreds.
"It's a once in a lifetime opportunity," he says, grinning through his long, salt-and-pepper goatee.
For Bob McKee of Van Buren, Ohio, the flag symbolizes how much the U.S. has grown and changed over the years, while remaining strong. The 60-year-old flies four U.S. flags outside of his home, a few miles from Findlay, Ohio — a northwest Ohio community that's been known as Flag City since the 1970s.
"People from both political parties, from the left to the right, the one thing they have in common is the love for their country and what represents that is the US flag," he said.
After Sept. 11, McKee draped the flag in black crepe.
The attacks did more than usher a renaissance for the U.S. flag; they have also spawned a cottage industry of entirely new flag designs, mostly sold to raise money for various 9/11 charities.
There's the "Flag of Heroes," which lists the names of all emergency workers who died on Sept. 11. The "Flag of Honor" lists the names of everyone who died in the attacks that day.
There are two flags dedicated to the 40 who died aboard Flight 93 in a Shanksville, Pa., field: It declares, "OUR NATION WILL ETERNALLY HONOR THE HEROES OF FLIGHT 93" at the top three white stripes.
A retired Catholic priest created the "Thunder Flag," comprised of a blue stripe on top, white in the middle, and red on the bottom. On the top blue stripe are four white stars, representing the four planes on 9/11. The other colors represent heaven, courage and American soil.
There's a "9/11 National Remembrance Flag" that is loosely modeled on the POW-MIA flag.
There's a traditional American flag with the New York City skyline, including the twin towers, superimposed on the field of stars.
There's the "9/11 Patriot Flag," created by a Sept. 11 survivor, which depicts the Pentagon, two trident steel columns from the World Trade Center and four stars, one for each hijacked jet that crashed on Sept. 11.
That flag shouldn't be confused with the other "Patriot Flag" — a 75-pound, traditional U.S. flag that's also touring the country to honor the victims. It will be in New England on July 4.
Marvin, the Penn professor, says it's common, especially after such a ground-shifting event like Sept. 11, for flags to take on the status of a "sacred icon."
Or a national quilt. In West Virginia — the 32nd state to host the national flag's tour — folks lowered their voices to describe their feelings about having contact with something that once was near New York's twin towers. Yet when pressed to explain, they fell back on simple phrases about America and pride.
Samuel Boynton, who served in WWII, Korea and Vietnam and used a walker to approach the flag, says simply: "It means number one to me. There's no other flag better than the American flag."
A New York construction worker retrieved the flag and stored it at his home in a plastic bag for seven years — then brought it to Kansas when a nonprofit group, the New York Says Thank You Foundation, went to help people there recover from a tornado strike. State by state, Americans are stitching the banner back together, using pieces of fabric from American flags scheduled for retirement.
The flag is in Southport, N.C., this weekend; at the end of its tour, it will be displayed at the National Sept. 11 Memorial & Museum in New York.
Denny Deters, the president of the New York Says Thank You Foundation, his wife and their tiny Yorkie dog travel with the flag around the country, mostly in the couple's RV — although they occasionally fly. As he did in Martinsburg, Deters often emcee's each stop and introduces the people who lay the first stitches.
But the greying, faded flag that once flew across from ground zero might be most remembered for what it offers: a chance for ordinary Americans to weave a bit of their own history into the fabric.
Mending it, Deters said, "shows that the American people have the resiliency to come back."
In Martinsburg, Dawn Johns, 41, waited patiently in line. She had been there since the beginning, to mend a tiny piece of national history. She said that she could feel the patriotism, the emotion, as she looked at the flag.
"It represents everyone coming together and helping one another after a tragedy," she said.
Two hours later, it was Johns' turn to stitch, She had tears in her eyes as she took the needle in her hand.