Slanted rays of late afternoon sunshine hit the enormous American flag billowing over Fort McHenry, spotlighting the stars and stripes in a dazzling glow of red, white and blue.
Old Glory always flies at the Baltimore fort. And on this day the biggest of four versions in the landmark's repertoire happened to be atop the flagpole - a 30-by-42-foot replica of the one that inspired a certain poem-turned-anthem 195 years ago.
Better still for the couple dozen visitors who braved the icy breeze, there was more to do than just look. To their surprise and delight, these tourists were pressed into service by park ranger Vince Vaise for the 4:20 p.m. flag change.
O say, can you help?
"Gather 'round!" shouted Vaise, 38, chief of interpretation at the Fort McHenry National Monument & Historic Shrine. Because of this banner's immensity, Vaise and fellow rangers rope in whoever's visiting with a call to arms.
"If you'll help me catch this flag," Vaise told the assembled group, "we'll begin the show."
Flag change is a twice-a-day event, morning and afternoon. One flag comes down the 79-foot pole; another goes up. For Vaise these moments are the best parts of the day. After all, Fort McHenry is the meeting place of two potent American symbols - the national anthem and the flag - and he wants people to go home with a strong personal connection.
The constant sight of the American flag at the fort can be credited to President Harry S. Truman. In 1948, he proclaimed that it must always fly on the spot, the first time a president had specified a location.
Even so, for a few years the fort's overseers ignored the presidential decree, Vaise says. They felt the buck stopped at the federal flag code, which banned flying the flag in bad weather. Since the early 1950s, Truman's will has been carried out faithfully.
Glance up at the flagpole today, and you'll always see a flag, in one of four sizes. The smallest is 5 by 9 feet; it has the overnight shift. Another is 10 by 14 feet. Next up is a 17-by-25-foot version. This was the size of the "storm flag" that flew on the rainy night of the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in September 1814.
The granddaddy is bigger than most billboards. It's identical in size to the one hoisted by American soldiers the morning of Sept. 14, 1814, in place of the sodden storm flag, as proof that the fort had survived. History says Francis Scott Key saw that flag by dawn's early light (or was it a little after 9 a.m.?), a sight he immortalized in a poem that became our national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner."
In lousy weather, the littlest flag sometimes flies all day. Otherwise, morning flag change is at 9:30. Wind conditions determine which flag gets raised. The biggest can't go up in no wind (it'll hang limply) or too much (due to the strain on the flagpole).
As luck had it, on this winter afternoon the 14-knot breeze was just right for the big flag. And now it was time to stow it for the night. First, Vaise regaled the small crowd with some history, and he mentioned a recent visit by Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps. A previous visitor had questioned the swimmer's relevance to the fort.
Vaise: "And we said, 'Well, sir, he saw the flag at the high point of the flagpole [in Beijing] eight times; he heard the national anthem played eight times. The national anthem and the American flag go together. This is where it all started when Francis Scott Key wrote the words about seeing the flag fly from this very spot.' "
Then it was time. "Here we go," Vaise barked. He eased on a white rope, and the flag plunged. Necks craned amid shrieks and giggles. A child's arms reached up, joined by more arms just in time to greet the undulating red and white stripes.
People vanished momentarily in a sea of nylon. At one point, the flag kissed the ground, only to be rescued from the indignity by several hands.
Within seconds, at the rangers' direction, the group held the flag horizontally. Those on either long end were told to walk toward the person across from them, bunching the material as they went. Once the opposite sides met, the group had what looked to be a 42-foot red, white and blue snake. Slowly it was fed into a bag for next time. Meantime, the smallest flag zipped up the pole.
One citizen helper, Naval Academy instructor Rodolfo Jacobo, knows about handling flags. "I've done it many a time, and presented it to weeping widows," he said. This was special because he and his wife had brought their two young daughters.
Natalia, who's 9, seemed wowed by her hands-on encounter with the flag. "It means, like, freedom. That's what a lot of people say."
Nearby, Jeanne Hammett of St. Mary's County said she struggled to grasp the slippery nylon in her mittens. And it was surprisingly heavy. By now she'd had a minute to reflect on the moment.
"Something like this kind of makes you sentimental, patriotic," she said. "That flag represents the history of this country and this new president we've got."
Hammett was visiting the fort with relatives, including her nephew and his mother, Laura Norton of Annapolis. At 5, Charlie can sing the national anthem, his mother said. She guessed that from now on the tune would mean more to him.
Charlie agreed. "I think it will, 'cuz I think it'll make me remember touching the flag."
And what does he think the flag stands for? "It stands for America."