SKOWHEGAN — It’s a cold, bitter day Saturday afternoon, and in the parking lot of the Peter-Shortier American Legion Post 16, on Waterville Road, a fire burns.

But the fire is not for warmth. It’s a roaring flame, with black smoke billowing out of the large, metal can containing the flames. Get too close to the conflagration, and you’re greeted with an abrasive smell, not quite burning plastic but something close to it.

And then a boy, dressed in just sweatpants and sweatshirt, feeds the fire more. But it is not with leafs or logs that he feeds the fire. Instead, the source of the fire is fairly surprising: retired American flags, which are worn out and need to be replaced.

Steve Spaulding, the Post 16 commander, said flags are good until they are worn out and tattered, at which point they need to be retired. There are two ways to retire flags, he said: burn them, or bury them. The Skowhegan burning is an annual event, held on or near to Veterans Day, in conjunction with Skowhegan-Madison Elks Lodge. Spaulding said each year they alternate between both organizations’ locations.

“We had the biggest crowd ever, over 100,” Spaulding said of this year’s ceremony. He added there was no room left in the parking lot earlier in the day, because of how many people attended.

“It’s pretty special this year,” he said of the event actually falling on Veterans Day.

Spaulding said the ceremony also involved local youth groups, who conducted different parts of the ceremony.

Tracy Smith, who volunteers with the local Venture Crew, said by late Saturday afternoon they had been burning for at least an hour and a half. Boy scout groups helped out. The first group was the color guard, the next group folded the flags, and the final group began the retirement.

“They did an awesome job,” she said.

By late Saturday afternoon, there were just a handful of people lingering in the cold, but still with two large trash bags full of flags. Spaulding said this year, the Pittsfield legion brought over thousands of flags from the town’s cemetery that needed to be retired.

Lee Couturier, a post member for the past five years, said this is the first time he’s been able to participate in the retirement ceremony.

“It’s a good thing to do,” he said.

He said it was a good community event, and it was good to see young people getting involved with the post, he said.

The United States Flag Code establishes rules for proper display and care of the American flag, and states that when a flag is torn and tattered beyond repair, it should be destroyed in a dignified manner, preferably by burning.

Spaulding said they do go through the flags before burning them, as people occasionally bring in flags that do not need to be retired. And sometimes, they find pieces of history.

“We have found flags with 48 stars,” he said, meaning the flag was made prior to Alaska and Hawaii being admitted to the nation as states. They saved those flags.

Colin Ellis — 861-9253

[email protected]

Twitter: @colinoellis

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