LEWISTON — When the first flags were unfurled, marched onto Simard-Payne Memorial Park and anchored in place, Rollie Heckethorn began to choke up.
“I actually saw this,” he said, watching uniformed Army cadets walk to their spots and slide the PVC flagpoles onto their rebar anchors. “It’s exactly how I imagined it.”
The Washington, D.C., native threw his head back and let loose a siren-like patriotic “Whoop!”
Then he looked at the wide field and its exposed grass.
“Five years from now we’ll cover this field,” Heckethorn said.
The display of 400 flags — described as a “Field of Honor” — is a fundraiser for the Auburn Exchange Club. The civic group hopes to raise money by selling all of the 400 flags at $40 each. Proceeds will fund its charity work.
Meanwhile, the spectacle will spread its patriotic message until Monday afternoon, when organizers will return the park to the city.
“It’s all about the veterans,” Heckethorn said. “We’re honoring them and their sacrifices.”
The retired Navy man began working on the field at 6 a.m., amid Friday morning’s mist. He divided the 100-f00t square box into 20 rows of 20 and marked the field for the rebar.
By 8 a.m, nine cadets from Lewiston High School and Lewiston Middle School arrived and began setting the anchors. More club members arrived, including a pair from the state’s only other exchange club, located in Waterville.
At 9:30 a.m, as the sun burned off the last of the morning mist, they ran into a glitch.
Their supplier — a company that supplies flags for similar fields around the country — had sent too few pieces of rebar. A flurry of cellphone calls settled on a local steel company that agreed to immediately cut the needed 36-inch-long, half-inch-thick rods.
While the cadets were still sliding the flagpoles into place, the new steel arrived.
Heckethorn shrugged off the problem.
“Life happens, huh?” he said.
David Projansky, the self-described “detail man” who co-chaired the project with Heckethorn, stood and watched the work with awe. The cadets moved so fast that the project was running hours ahead of schedule.
It was better than they had a right to expect from a project in its first year, he said.
Projansky learned of the “field of honor” concept after attending a regional meeting of exchange clubs last November. Counterparts in Newburyport, Mass., held one that paid tribute to the lives lost during the Sept. 11 attacks. Hundreds of others have been held around the country.
It seemed to dovetail with some of the local club’s other work, including leading the Memorial Day parade and handing out thousands of flags to the people who line the route.
They plan to lead the parade again this year. And after the parade and a ceremony at nearby Veterans Memorial Park, the flag spectacle will be dedicated in a noontime ceremony that’s scheduled to include Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine, and Gov. Paul LePage.
In a way, the ceremony began with the cadets carrying the flags one by one.
The teenagers rarely talked as they did their job. They wore long sleeves and berets despite the heat. And they handled the flags with care.
Instructor Dan Gish said they all had been taught how to handle a flag, careful never to let it touch the ground.
“It teaches them to respect tradition,” Gish said.
Matthew Evangelista, a junior at Lewiston High, seemed to take the work seriously. He rarely cracked a smile during the duty and tried walking in formation with his fellow cadets as he made his way through the rows of flags.
In a free moment, he talked of pride and dignity and a willingness to serve.
“This shows we can help the community,” he said.