July 4, 2002
RAISING THE FLAG
DANIELA LAMAS, email@example.com
At 73, Hal Peterson figures he has climbed more
than 1,000 flagpoles since his dad taught him how one morning
when he was 12. His father had just received a call from the
president of nearby
Ryder College in New Jersey, alerting him the American flag
had been replaced with a pair of red boxers.
After years of watching his dad scale flagpoles, Peterson
climbed the 35-foot pole and took down the offending garment
(the result of a hazing ritual). He hoisted the flag, ran to
the bathroom, changed his clothes and made it to school on
time. ``I got up there and found out how much I liked being
there,'' he said. Six decades later, Peterson still
climbs with a grace born of a lifetime installing and
repairing flagpoles. With characteristic perseverance, he's
parlayed his skill into a thriving family business, H.A.
Peterson & Sons, run from a storefront off
South Dixie Highway near The Falls.
Peterson's work can be found throughout
South Florida: the 40-foot flagpole gracing the American
Airlines Arena, the approximately 70 flags at the main
International Airport, the flags marking Sylvester Stallone's
former Coconut Grove home.
``We've got our landmarks all over,'' Peterson says,
smiling. ``When we raise a flag, there's a real satisfaction
from seeing the flag flying in a new location.'' At
11 a.m. on a recent Friday, the store is quiet.
Peterson's son, Mark, is working on the firm's website, hapsons.com,
an increasingly lucrative portion of their business. Mark and
his mother, Joan, handle the day-to-day store operations,
while dad and son Scott are the on-site climbers. No wonder.
Early in his career, Mark discovered he was afraid of heights.
He could climb 20, 30 or 40 feet, but no higher.
``He and my brother love it,'' Mark says, gesturing to his
father. ``But I could do without it.''
Dad, on the other hand, revels in his highest climb - 125 feet,
on a wooden, double-masted nautical pole. He was repairing the
rope on a pole at The Lawrenceville School in
Rather than climb, Mark has sent flagpoles to
Japan, Russia, England, Ireland and most of the islands in the
Caribbean, he says. Most recently, he sent six 40-foot
Antarctica, where they will be stored until the spring,
when they will be transported to the South Pole.
Behind the store, a warehouse holds the flagpoles - 5,000 pounds,
in total, of aluminum wrapped in thick brown paper. A number
of tattered American flags are piled in a bucket in the back.
When they take down a flagpole or replace the flag,
Peterson gives the old flags to the Eagle Scouts so they
can learn the official flag-burning ceremony. As he and Mark
fold an American flag with military-style precision,
Peterson describes some of their more memorable
flag-climbing experiences. There was the trip to
Ohio, to straighten a flagpole on a day so cold the flagpole
was covered with a sheet of ice. When Scott finished his job,
Peterson told his son to come back down. Instead, his
son asked him to send a camera back up - the view at 702 feet
was too beautiful to ignore. On Tuesday, dad and Scott will
travel to the Atlantis Resort in
Island to fix the light at the top of the Bahamian flagpole in
front of the hotel.
Surprisingly, business doesn't generally increase around July
4th, Peterson says.
``It's pretty constant. But every year, we get some call on the
second or third of July from someone telling us they'd like a
flagpole in front of their house - and they'd like it by the
4th,'' Peterson says, laughing.
But business has steadily increased since Sept. 11. In the two
days following the terrorist attacks, the store sold all of
its flags, along with all the parts necessary to fix
Even the sign on the door - ``Sorry, we have no flags'' - didn't
``We didn't have a screw left,'' Peterson says. At one
point, a man called to order 1,500 American flags. The man
told him he needed the flags for a parade in
Peterson says he told the man to call the
U.S. government. The man responded, ``I am the U.S.
The road to H.A. Peterson & Sons was a long one,
inextricably intertwined with Peterson's family
history. Peterson spent most of his childhood traveling
with his dad, Harold, who built and repaired steeples, radio
towers, smokestacks, brick chimneys and, yes, flagpoles. A
steeplejack, if you will.
``I loved it,'' Peterson remembers. ``We'd work hard all
day and play hard in the evening.''
But Peterson knew the steeplejack trade would not last, as
the work was increasingly farmed out to large construction
companies. His dad's business died in the mid-1950s.
At 21, Peterson began working as a flight attendant at the
now-defunct Eastern Airlines. He spent a few years in the
Navy, followed by a stint repairing televisions and television
antennae before returning to the airline.
He married and had three sons. Although he told his sons stories
of his childhood adventures, Peterson says he never
expected to find a way to revive the Peterson family
But at a July 4 celebration in 1983, Mark and Scott told their
dad they wanted to make a living selling flagpoles. The third
son, Brian, lives in
N.Y. He is not in the flagpole business.
It had been two decades since Peterson had last hoisted
himself up a flagpole; he told them they were out of their
minds. But his sons insisted.
``It was our family history,'' Mark says. Peterson took
them to the park of a local elementary school to teach them
how to climb. He says he hadn't lost his skill with the rig of
two stirrups and two pieces of rope - nor had he lost his love
of the balancing act. ``It's like riding a bicycle. You just
don't forget,'' he says. Newly motivated by his sons'
excitement, Peterson set up accounts with flag,
flagpole and rope providers. Zachary Edge of Edge Cordage has
supplied the Petersons with nylon solid braid rope and nylon
solid braid with wire for added strength for over 10 years.
``He's good folks,'' Edge says of Peterson. ``There are
fewer and fewer out there like him.''
At first, Peterson says, ``things were kind of lean.'' But
after a year, he began collecting a small, but stable,
customer base. One of the appeals of his business, Peterson
says, is that he and his sons climb the flagpoles
themselves-with a technique that was passed down from
Peterson's grandfather, a seaman who learned to climb from
hoisting himself up the ships' masts.
Rather than using more cumbersome cranes or cherry pickers, Scott
uses one of his grandfather's old climbing stirrups, made from
In 1984, Peterson retired early from Eastern and threw
himself into the burgeoning family business. ``We thought
flags might still be a viable business,'' Peterson
says. ``We had no idea we'd be where we are today.''
Peterson says he expects to continue climbing flags ``until I'm
And he sees potential for a fellow climber in his 4-year-old
granddaughter, who loves to climb onto the roof of the
Peterson's shop. Although Peterson's father died
before the family created H.A. Peterson & Sons,
Peterson says he's sure his father would be proud of what
he's doing today. ``If he's up there, I'm sure he's smiling
down on us,'' he says.
In 1818, Congress passed a bill, which was signed into law, that
limits the number of stripes on the American flag to 13 -
seven red, six white. The law says the number of stars must
match the number of states, and that a new star would be added
on July 4 in the year after a state was admitted to the