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So Proudly They Wave

A Flag Collector's Annual July Spectacular

June 16, 2002|LEILAH BERNSTEIN

When a renewed sense of patriotism gripped America after Sept. 11, Duarte resident Abe Ohanian had no trouble empathizing with those rushing to the flag store--he's been doing the same thing for 30 years.

Each Fourth of July since 1972, the gregarious 73-year-old stockbroker flies hundreds of flags on the grounds of his modest ranch-style home--and not just the American variety. Ohanian's dazzling collection of about 500 flags includes more than 100 American banners and more than 200 foreign flags along with state flags, military flags, Olympic flags and other varieties.

In sheer numbers, Ohanian's annual spectacular beats the daily display at the United Nations in New York, which shows a mere 189 flags that represent member nations. (Indeed, Ohanian has adopted the U.N.'s alphabetical arrangement system.) His initial display in 1972 featured flags of the Central African Republic, France, Italy, Thailand, the U.S. and the African nation of Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), which Ohanian ran along the sides of his house by attaching them to the roof.

That first effort was a die-hard Democrat's response to a 1971 speech by Richard M. Nixon. Ohanian remembers the then-president speaking of flags "as if they belonged to the Republican Party." No, he thought, "they belong to everybody. They belong to the people, not only to the government."

Ohanian, who dabbled in journalism as a teen and majored in history and political science at Cal State L.A., has the collecting bug in a big way. Flags are just one of his numerous collections, which number about 40,000 items in categories including political buttons, cameras, coins, hats, magazines and the works of William Saroyan.

By the early '90s, with a growing inventory of old and new flags purchased at swap meets, estate sales and flag stores, Ohanian devised a better showcase for his finds: He had about 300 holes dug on his roughly one-acre property; each holds a 10-foot PVC pipe for a 3-by-5-foot flag. Each July, the flags wave above his 29 fruit trees and weave around his basketball court, pool and house, a Herculean effort requiring six hours and three men. About 200 smaller flags attached to 18-inch wood sticks are arranged on the lawn in rows to resemble a memorial ground for fallen war heroes.

Ohanian says that the most common flag motifs are the sickle, crescent and cross. Older flags are made of cotton, newer ones of nylon. Value varies widely, depending on size, condition, age and design. He estimates that his largest pieces (American flags, one of which measures 6 feet by 10 feet) are worth upward of $500 each--but investment was never his main concern. "I just liked the colors."

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