I am proud of my Country and its flag.
I want to look back and say that I am proud to have served my country as a soldier.
- The Soldier's Code

Where this flag flies, every day is Memorial Day

Gigantic U.S. flag on Interstate 80 honors soldier killed in Iraq

May 27, 2007 Staff writer Lauren FitzPatrick

Some 3,000 miles of Interstate 80 cross the United States, tunneling under the curves of Appalachian mountains in Pennsylvania, cutting through tall grasses of the Midwestern plains, connecting sparse urban dots between Des Moines and Salt Lake City before halting somewhere in San Francisco.

For a cross-country traveler, the highway's directions are simple, albeit monotonous -- head straight west, keep going, stop at Pacific Ocean.

The flag honoring Shawn Pahnke flies above Berland's House of Tools, 1695 New Lenox Road.

For the daydreamers who may have forgotten where they are, however, a mammoth masterpiece in red, white and blue fluttering high in the Will County sky along I-80 reminds you -- this is America.

Along the longest highway traversing these United States, between New Lenox and Joliet, a giant American flag rises up from the bluffs and the farms and the semis.

Measuring a whopping 30 by 66 feet, this flag boasts stars nearly a foot in diameter. The folks at Berland's House of Tools decided to fly this flag to honor one of Will County's fallen stars, a native son taken down by a sniper's bullet in Baghdad.

Army Pvt. Shawn Pahnke, a 25-year-old Manhattan man, was shot and killed while on patrol on June 16, 2003. He'd never seen his infant son, Dean.

One of the early casualties of the war in Iraq, Pahnke's death stunned the village of Manhattan, where his dad was the village administrator. The son and grandson of war veterans had enlisted in the months leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, right after marrying his wife, Elisha.

"The people of Manhattan didn't know what to do. They all loved him," said Jeff Cook of Orland Park, the manager at Berland's.

Though no one at the store knew Pahnke, the owner of Berland's stepped in to honor the memory of a man he'd never met. Dwight Sherman put up thousands of dollars to mount a pole outside his store. Here, a gigantic flag would catch the eye of thousands of daily travelers along I-80.

A photo of the young soldier and a brass plaque reading "Spirit of Manhattan" originally graced the memorial. The plaque now bears the scars of fierce weather. Cook means to replace the photograph so all will know how a son and father sacrificed his life.

"You can't get any more patriotic than that flag," said Linda Pahnke, Shawn's mother. On several occasions, she's come to the flagpole and taped decorations to it.

"We're very proud," she said, "But I struggle each day. I'm supposed to be living my life. I have to learn to live without him, but he's in our hearts." 'It gives me chills every time'

Berland's flag towers 100 feet above the divided highway atop a white steel pole.

Three beams illuminate the banner every night.

"We don't want any recognition from it -- it's really to honor Shawn and all other people who made a sacrifice," Cook said. "We're very proud to fly it."

Truckers blast their air horns as they speed by, Cook said. The cacophony escalates whenever the flag is on the move up or down the pole.

"Truckers drive by and call 'Hey, I love your flag,' " Cook said. Many tell him they are veterans of the wars in Vietnam or Korea. "Some break up on the phone while talking to me."

The famous flag has made appearances at Silver Cross field in Joliet, where it spans the baseball stadium's infield. Dozens of hands are needed to keep the flag off the ground. The banner has been carried in a few local parades, too.

A few years ago, a microburst bent the first pole beyond repair. Tool store workers set up a new one. A storm last year tore the flag so badly it needed to be retired.

Service manager Jerry Lopatkiewicz has bigger plans in mind for a formal memorial garden open to anyone who pulls into Berland's driveway. Lopatkiewicz already has built pathways that snake around the floodlights to make the spot wheelchair accessible. The toolmen dug out the area around the pole and laid brickwork. Between jobs at the tool store, Lopatkiewicz cuts the grass, puts in plants, and cleans the bowl surrounding the flagpole.

"It gives me chills every time I pass it," said Lopatkiewicz, who lost two brothers and a handful of friends in Vietnam. "Little by little, I'm trying to get it done to dedicate it for our troops and all our veterans." Flag protocol

The folds of fabric weigh 98 pounds, sewn from a hefty polyester blend. When it wears out, these stars and stripes are carried to New Lenox VFW Post 9545 for a proper disposal by fire.

"It takes a few people to get it down," Cook said. "We're careful not to let it touch the ground."

But come down it must for cleaning and mending about once a month or so. The extra length allows ragged edges to be trimmed and resewn. At least two strong men are needed to hoist and lower the flag. Often, as many as four gently guide Old Glory down from its perch to fold it and box it for shipping back to its maker.

Action Flags crafted the giant and its replacements for the toolmen. As many as four flags once flew in rotation. Now only two remain, but they seem sturdy enough to withstand galeforce winds.

As the service manager at Berland's, Lopatkiewicz is in charge of maintenance and repairs. But really he's the unofficial flag keeper, self-taught in the protocol of flag flying.

Retiring a torn flag shows respect, and burning an old one must be done right, he said. First the stars are cut off, Lopatkiewicz said. The stripes are burned first. Then the blue field turns to ash.

People have asked him for the old flags, wanting to cut the fabric into strong tents and the like. He won't hear of it.

"People should be proud of their flag," Lopatkiewicz said. This is heaven

The sound of the whipping fabric carries out the highway. On blustery days, the folks inside Berland's can hear the flag cracking the wind, too. Ronald Keen hears the flag in his shady backyard oasis, separated from the tool store by a black plowed field and an old barren creek.

"We just love that flag," said the retired 73-year-old Joliet firefighter, whose yard abuts the highway. "I'm always watching that flag. From where I'm at, I can see the whole flag."

Sitting under a cluster of trees, an unlit cigar in his mouth, Keen and his three dogs watch the flag. Inspired by its sweep across the sky, he thinks about America. Wont to say "heck" and "dad-gum," Keen reflects on his own life as a young man from a farm way downstate, and how he could build a life for himself and his three children here, far from his father's sawmills.

Keen and his wife are slowing down, feeling their years.

The flag that feeds the spirit of travelers along Interstate 80, the workers inside Berland's House of Tools, and the people of Will County also bring peace to Keen.

The hypnotic hum of steadily passing traffic on the highway lures Keen away from his yardwork and plants him in a peeling Adirondack chair.

"This is heaven," Keen said, "and there's a flag there that I just love."

Lauren FitzPatrick may be reached at lfitzpatrick@dailysouthtown.com or (708) 633-5964.

About the flag:
The flag measures 30 feet by 66 feet

The flag's stars are almost a foot wide

The flag weighs 98 pounds

The flagpole is 100 feet high

The flag honoring Shawn Pahnke flag flies above Berland's House of Tools, 1695 New Lenox Road.
"Reprinted with permission of the Daily Southtown."

Credits:

1st Armored Division images: Shawn's Unit, Co. C, 1-37 Armor

Article courtesy of the Daily Southtown