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Tale of a Town's Unflagging Patriotism

Skyscraper-sized Stars and Stripes joins space collection that includes moon rocks and astronaut diapers

HOW big a pole do you need to fly a seven-ton flag?

This is a question much on the minds of residents of Hutchinson, a town of 40,000 in the heart of Kansas wheat country.

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Earlier this year when the US government put a giant American flag on its list of surplus items, the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center snagged it for the bargain-basement price of $1,800. Nearly all of that sum was spent on shipping and handling. (The flag came in its own trailer).

The idea was to generate publicity and, possibly, incorporate the flag into the museum's addition. Then they discovered just how big the flag was. At 210 feet long by 411 feet high, it is 21 stories tall and longer than a city block. While the museum got lots of publicity, it also got a flag so heavy it has never been flown. Most likely, it never will be.

The idea for this red-white-and-blue behemoth was born in the period leading up to the country's bicentennial celebration. Those were heady days. ''Nothing in moderation!'' was the rallying cry when it came to flaunting patriotic zeal. Len Silverfine, a Vermont businessman, commissioned an enormous flag to hang from the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in New York City as a backdrop for the celebrations there.

But when the flag was draped over the bridge, a puff of wind reduced it to ribbons. Undeterred, Mr. Silverfine formed a committee to create a better flag. With material contributed by a company in South Carolina and labor from a circus-tent manufacturer in Indiana, the flag was finally assembled in 1980. The new flag - made of heavy-gauge knit polyester - was better by far.

It was also twice as big. Weighing in at seven tons, the flag threatened to pull down anything it was hung from. Not entirely neglected, it was unfurled in front of the Washington Monument and pictured on the cover of Life magazine. But by 1983, nobody had come up with a way to actually fly the thing. The committee could come up with no better plan than to give it to the president.

The flag was embraced by Ronald Reagan like a repatriated national relic. ''I promise you your government will keep it, treasure it, and use it as a reminder of the greatness that is America,'' he pledged.

Then the General Services Administration stashed it away in a Maryland warehouse, removing it in 1990 only long enough to get rid of the mildew that caused the flag to smell like the world's largest wet dog. It was washed at a golf-ball factory, dried by Marine helicopters, then returned to storage.

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Meanwhile, back in Kansas, the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson had been busily acquiring artifacts from the US and Soviet space programs, becoming the second-largest such museum in the country. Its roughly 11,000 objects include capsules, moon rocks, space suits, and related oddities such as half-eaten space meals and diapers worn by astronauts.

Even in its inglorious pose, folded up in a trailer, the Cosmosphere's new flag fits in with the state's modest collection of roadside attractions.

Among other curios found in Kansas are the world's largest ball of twine, the deepest well dug by hand, the world's largest collection of telephones, and a life-size replica of the Liberty Bell made entirely of wheat.

Now Kansas is home to the world's heaviest, though not largest, flag. The biggest flag - 25 percent larger than Hutchinson's - belongs to Thomas Demski of Long Beach, Calif. And he hasn't figured out how to fly his either.

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