Pledged

To Tradition

May 23, 2001|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

PASSING IT down is what it's all about. That's what it's always been about.

On a Saturday morning in 1914, Margaret Katherine Wheeler and her classmates took the streetcar to the Light Street wharf. Then they boarded a ferry for the short trip to Fort McHenry.

Margaret was 13 years old. She lived in East Baltimore, wore her brown, naturally wavy hair in a bob and was just learning to "bang" on the ukelele. That day, Sept. 12, she became part of history, part of a white stripe in the first human flag commemorating the 100th anniversary of Baltimore's defense of Fort McHenry against the British.

She joined roughly 6,500 other Baltimore schoolchildren in a patriotic tribute to the flag which had withstood the test of time.

They, too, were to face many challenges. World War I, the Great Depression, World War II - the list went on. Wheeler married John F. McMahon, who gave her six children but died when their youngest was five months old. At the age of 39, she went to work for the B&O and stayed with the railroad system until she retired in 1970. Over the years, she lost two sons. She also acquired 18 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren.

Yesterday, she returned to Fort McHenry to participate in what has become an annual Living American Flag Program. This time, Margaret Wheeler McMahon was 100. She arrived in a Jeep Cherokee driven by her 72-year-old son Charles.

It was the second time she took part in the flag ceremony.

It was the first time for Erika Warfle, age 8. She got on a bus at 6 a.m. in Pittsville -- just east of Salisbury - to be part of the patriotic field trip to Baltimore. A third-grader at Pittsville Elementary School, Warfle has light brown hair, loves math and was one of 200 or so lucky children still able to participate when the flag event moved into the Naval Reserve Center at the fort because of the threat of rain.

Erika knew she was taking part in a ceremony about freedom, and also, she said, about remembering people who had died in the war. She was eager to do her bit to raise the flag.

As she sat near the back with her school friends, she could barely see Margaret McMahon in her wheelchair, up front in the row of honor. But she could watch the three children who walked up, on her behalf, to receive the gold-colored baton of patriotism from the old woman and her fellow flag veterans Rudy Mann and Stephen Sikorski.

Finally, it was time for Erika to stand and lift the piece of blue cardboard she had found on her folding chair. The room erupted in applause.

The third-grader was now officially part of Fort McHenry's 2001 Living Flag.

What would she remember about this day? How the ceremony was held inside even though it was sunny after all? The plates of cookies and egg salad sandwiches? The nautical flags kids counted while they waited for the grown-ups to stop introducing one another? The people who shared her corner of the star-studded blue field?

Some memories take a while to catch fire. One day, Erika Warfle might find herself watching a trust handed to another generation and suddenly lose herself in a wave of emotion.

Or perhaps, like Margaret McMahon, she may outlive such sentiment. She may find historic occasions whet her appetite for something else festive, like a big Reuben sandwich at Patrick's Restaurant.

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