Finding Ways to Be Good Neighbors
The Freeport Flag Ladies had been standing with the American Flag on Main Street every Tuesday for the 18 years since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Last fall, they decided to stop their weekly vigil. Their plan was to remain active in patriotic causes, but to shift their energies from standing vigil to helping other organizations: Wreaths Across America; the Bangor Troop Greeters; a group training therapy dogs for veterans; and Honor Flight Maine. Then COVID-19 arrived, bringing to a halt the work of those groups and several others with whom the ladies volunteered.
So, Elaine Greene, who turns 75 in November, and her friends JoAnn Miller and Carmen Footer, who will be 84 and 79 soon, stayed busy decorating for the Fourth of July. They put out free red, white, and blue Tootsie Pops out for passersby, and provided a big jar of Milk Bones for dogs. They also grew free seedlings and set them out by the sidewalk for anyone interested.
“Our best plan is to be a good neighbor,” Elaine said this fall. “We have a lot more people who walk by now. We try to do things to be more friendly because everyone is not socializing like they used to. So, we have a big jar of Milk Bones—it’s amazing the smile on someone’s face when you give their dog a Milk Bone! And I have memberships at Sam’s and BJ’s, which some of our neighbors don’t, so I’ll ask, ‘Is there something I can pick up for you?’ We are willing to do things for other people to make their day better, to help them not feel quite so isolated from the world. We can all still do those things. It doesn’t take a lot to help somebody else out.”
Upset by the pandemic, political polarization, and civil unrest, the trio decided to stand again with the American flag on Main Street in Freeport this past September 11, as they had done so often throughout the years. “We just couldn’t let that day go by, particularly in the situation we are in now,” Elaine said. “We have to have people get involved in a positive way with their country!”
Because of the pandemic, the three made the decision not to go public about their plans. “We were just going to do it [stand out with the flag] quietly,” Elaine said. “We called three people who stood with us so often in the past, but we didn’t call the press.” Despite this decision to keep their intentions quiet, their plans came to the attention of Wreaths Across America, which was holding an event near Jonesboro that day and was asking everyone nationwide to stand outside and wave a flag for one minute at 8:46, 9:03, 9:37 and 10:03 a.m. These are the times on 9/11 when the hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon, and a field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, killing almost 3,000 people and injuring 6,000.
In the end, a sizable crowd formed at the event that the Freeport Flag Ladies had created. Many people were wearing red, white, and blue attire. Musicians and reporters attended, and there was a visit from Senator Collins. “Word just leaked here and there, and we ended up with more people than expected, which was fine,” said Elaine. “They all wore masks, kept their distance, and were very considerate of each other.”
Elaine said she’s distraught about the lack of civility with which Americans are treating each other during this difficult time. “In 75 years of life, I’ve never seen this lack of civility in our country. It’s crazy and so totally unacceptable! Just normal life can get pretty hard, but right now, it’s hard for everyone. I wish I could do something. I would tell everyone to join hands and tell them we are going to get through it. It’s going to be a bumpy ride, but if we stay together, we’ll stay strong.”
One simple act leads to years of service
The tale of the Freeport Flag Ladies is a compelling one. As Elaine related, it all started with a broken heart and a raised flag. “Like any true-hearted American citizen, when I saw the second plane fly into the second tower, I knew we were under attack,” she said. “I knew it meant war. I was too old to enlist. I said one of the most sincere prayers that I have ever prayed, and I asked to be shown something that I could do for my country.”
When President George W. Bush called for a candlelight vigil on the evening of Friday, September 14, 2001, Elaine Greene had found her something to do.
Elaine, JoAnn, and Carmen decided to go to a hill on Main Street to display their candles. Elaine also brought an American flag. “I wondered if it was right to raise it, but I felt a nudge and I just did it,” she recalled. “People starting beeping their horns and yelling ‘God bless America!’ I told JoAnn and Carmen, ‘My prayer was just answered.’ I asked them to stand with me on that hill every Tuesday morning between 8 and 9 a.m. for one year to remember the people who lost their lives.”
And when troops began to deploy to Afghanistan and Iraq, they decided to stand out with the flag for many years, as well as get involved in civic life and support the military in other ways. Over the past 18 years, the Freeport Flag Ladies have supported soldiers, veterans, and families in many ways.
“Our classmates, brothers, and friends were of the Vietnam era,” said Elaine. Not willing to risk that veterans post-9/11 might be “mistreated like Vietnam vets were,” she said, “we decided let’s not let people forget they are out there laying down their lives, their limbs, and their sanity for the rest of us.”
The Flag Ladies would jump out of bed in the middle of the night to make the 2.5-hour drive to Bangor to greet troops. When multiple flights arrived, they would spend much of the day. “We felt like we were filling in for mothers who couldn’t be there because we were doing this out of real love,” said Elaine. “We would shake hands, give out hugs, kiss them goodbye, the same as we would have for our own child. And we posted the photos [online] so that parents could pick them up.”
The group also sent hundreds of packages to soldiers. They grew and sold “freedom flowers” by donation and held yard sales to fund their efforts.
Shortly after their “retirement” from these activities in September 2019, the trio was invited to a ceremony in Columbia Falls. “Lo and behold, they put in a big flag pole with a big star, an enormous rock with a plaque saying what we did, and an even bigger plaque with a picture of the three of us,” Elaine said. “These people took these steps in our honor! Can you imagine? We got a letter from the president and something from both senators. We don’t deserve all that! We are just common folks who showed that we cared.”
The Freeport Flag Ladies continued to work with Wreaths Across America, Patriot Guard Riders, VFWs, and other veterans’ groups, until COVID struck. “We’ve attended the funerals of our Maine fallen soldiers, which is the hardest thing we’ve done,” said Elaine. “We witness the agony of the parents, and the courage and strength they have in the things they’ve done afterwards to honor the son or daughter they lost.”
The Flag Ladies also spoke with school and church groups, “not to tell you what to think, but hopefully, to inspire you to get involved in service to something besides yourself,” Elaine said. “Everyone can do something. Just be a good neighbor. If your neighbors are older, or injured, or sick, help without waiting to be asked. Most people don’t want to ask, so offer. Open doors for people. Help a mother get her stroller up over a curb. It’s the little things. Each time you do a little thing, without knowing it, you are encouraged to do another, and it becomes part of who you are.”