Point of View: July 4, 1959 — A Remembrance of Alaska’s 49-Star Flag

July 4, 2019, marks the 60th anniversary of the first raising of the 49-star flag at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland.

“J’you know the capital of Alaska?”

My friends and I thought this a great joke. We delighted in people’s blank looks or slow smiles.

We didn’t know anything about Alaska or why a state’s capital had such a strange name. We thought Alaska must be like “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon” – snowy, cold, deserted except for desperate men and brave dogs.

July 4, 1959, was going to be a big day for Alaska, that I knew for sure. President Dwight Eisenhower had proclaimed that a new flag with 49 stars would be raised for the first time anywhere at one minute past midnight, July 4, at Fort McHenry, Baltimore, Maryland – and that’s where I lived.

My family piled into the station wagon the evening of July 3 to drive to Baltimore harbor. Thousands converged on the old fort to honor a brand new state. That hadn’t happened in 47 years, and the spectators were feeling very historic.

Picnickers staked their territories and settled in to enjoy the warm, humid evening, basking in Baltimore’s skyline. The crowd radiated from a towering flag pole, a newly constructed replica of the 1814 staff that bore the “broad stripes and bright stars” that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Twilight turned to dusk. Fried chicken, potato salad, Kool-Aid and brownies disappeared. Sweaters and jackets came out, and an expectant hush fell as darkness brought the United States Marine Band to the platform to start the countdown to midnight.

Local and national guests made their remarks. We kids squirmed through the formalities, eager for the real show to begin.

A resounding boom signaled the start. Out in Baltimore harbor, the United States Navy shot brilliant rockets to attack the fort. On land, the Army Field Artillery answered with crackling cannons. Alaska’s flag was welcomed with a reenactment of the 1814 British bombardment of Fort McHenry. Rockets glared red, bombs burst in air, but the gallant defenders held firm. When the smoke cleared, my wide eyes saw, as Key’s must have, the 1814 flag flying high above the ramparts.

With wild cheers and a flourish from the Marine Band, we turned back to the floodlit flag pole. One by one, people rose to their feet, straining to see the 49-star flag begin its slow, deliberate ascent.

My father swung me to his shoulders, and in a long, precious moment, the Honorable Fred Seaton, Secretary of the Interior, hoisted the flag, hand over hand. The Marine Band played “The Star-Spangled Banner,” as we stood hands over hearts, breathless with pride and wonder. The sky exploded with fireworks, sealing Alaska’s place in the nation.

We settled back to our blankets. The streaming colors and roaring booms kept my child’s overtired eyes and ears wide open, savoring the spectacle. Little did I know that the seed of my future was planted that night.

Marcia Kuszmaul first lived in Homer in the mid-1980s and returned 30 years later when she and her husband bought a bed and breakfast business. She’s here to stay.