Amy Donaldson: Hundreds of volunteers carry, hang a 400-pound flag across N. Ogden Canyon as tribute to Maj. Brent Taylor on Veterans Day
NORTH OGDEN — Kirk Chugg stood in the bed of a pickup truck Sunday morning, more than 150 people he’d never met huddled around him in the pre-dawn cold.
A friend interrupted, whispering something in his ear, and the Ogden businessman shifted from logistics to sentiment as the group prepared to send a one-of-a-kind message to the family of a man he loved and those like him.
“Brent would want this flag flown for more than just him,” Chugg said, his voice cracking under the weight of what was lost in Afghanistan last Saturday when Maj. Brent Taylor was killed. “He was that kind of man. So we’re flying this for everybody who has ever served our country. Thank you for being here and honoring Brent and those who served our country.”
The idea to hang a giant flag across Grove Creek Canyon near his Pleasant Grove home came to Kyle Fox one night when he was in bed. He and a friend surprised the community with the 30-foot-by-60-foot flag the morning of July 4, 2015.
“I was just hoping to pull off a stunt,” Fox said of that first year. “But I realized the impact it had on people; I realized it was healing people. It just changed everyone.”
So he kept doing it, creating a Facebook Community, Follow the Flag, where he posted about different ways they used the flag, now dubbed “Baby Betsy.” Earlier this year, he had a flag made that is six and a half times bigger than Baby Betsy.
“It is 150 feet long and 78 feet wide and weighs 400 pounds,” he said. “It’s a quarter acre.”
Big Betsy is the largest American flag to ever freely fly. It honored veterans at the Utah football game Saturday night, but then was prepared for a much more solemn purpose Sunday morning.
Jed Malmberg is a trail runner who is part of a group of runners known as Wasatch Mountain Wranglers. A few days ago, he got a call from Chugg, a family friend, about rounding up volunteers to help carry Big Betsy up Coldcreek Canyon, where they hoped to unfurl it as a surprise for Jenny Taylor, Maj. Taylor’s wife, and their seven children on Sunday morning.
“I just put the word out to all our trail running community,” he said. “They’re the ones with strong legs and hands. We need to get a 400-pound flag to the top of a mountain, and these guys and gals are built for it.”
The climb was 1.7 miles, not even a warmup for most of those involved in Wasatch Mountain Wranglers. But it was 1,000 feet of climbing, and they’d carry not only Big Betsy, but dozens of regular size flags to line the way for the massive flag and those who carried it.
“That’s what started the chain reaction of phone calls and text messages,” Malmberg said, acknowledging it was difficult to spread the word but keep the effort quiet. “We’ve had all kinds of folks involved. They all just jumped at it.”
From climbing experts, who helped set the cable that holds Big Betsy across Coldwater Canyon, to Davis and Weber Search and Rescue crews who made sure everyone involved was safe, all of the organizers were humbled by the number of volunteers.
When Chugg started a group dedicated to being better fathers, Taylor was the first person he invited to join.
“I was a good friend to Brent, but I wasn’t his best friend,” Chugg said. “But he made everyone feel like he was their best friend. Larger than life, I looked up to him in every way. He was humble, and just an amazing example of how to serve your community — and do it without ego. Just go love the people you were serving.”
In fact, that’s what Taylor asked of his friends, as well as the citizens he served as mayor of North Ogden.
“He asked all of us to serve our community,” Chugg said. “He said we could, from where we stood, not necessarily the way he did (in the National Guard). He encouraged us to look around and see what you could do for one another, and then serve each other in that way.”
He said that advice has become something of a legacy to the community he loved.
“This week in North Ogden has been the most euphoric and the most sorrowful in recent history,” Chugg said. “It’s been so painful, but to see the community pull together has been amazing. I couldn’t have put that flag up in that canyon alone. And I certainly couldn’t have done it in 72 hours.”
I was invited by my longtime friend Brian Nicholson, and while I had plans, I canceled them.
Like the community of North Ogden, I felt diminished by the loss of men I never met.
I was inspired by Major Taylor’s last admonishment to not only exercise our right to vote, but to be grateful for it. I was profoundly moved by the letter to Jennie Taylor about what her husband’s service in Afghanistan meant to him personally.
I was devastated to learn that two of the men killed in the Borderline mass shooting in California were members of the veterans group to which I belong, Team Red, White and Blue. Team RWB aims to enrich the lives of veterans through social, physical and service opportunities.
Dan Manrique was the Pacific regional program manager for Team RWB and a Marine Corps veteran, whose service to the world just evolved as his life did. Justin Meek was a member of the Ventura County chapter, and was, like me, a civilian with veteran family members.
I thought of all three of them as took my turn to help carry Big Betsy. I said a prayer for their families, and whispered their names into the icy canyon wind as I ran with a flag.
As the massive flag unfurled nearly three hours after we started Sunday morning, emotion rose in my chest — sadness for what we’ve lost; gratitude for what these men and people like them teach us by the way they live their lives; and hope that we will learn to love each other in small and significant ways.
When Fox tried to hang Big Betsy on the Fourth of July this year, it didn’t go as planned.
“We had a pretty gnarly snafu on July 4, and we had to abort, cut the lines, and the flag fell to the valley floor,” he said. “It had rips in it, and we went to a football field, and it was repaired and back up on the mountain in a few hours. We hung it on July 5.”
So he was more than a bit nervous about Sunday’s effort, as it was rushed, more dependent on volunteers he didn’t know, and a more solemn situation.
“It really is a miracle,” he said, noting he had his usual team of about five people and the rest were volunteers from the Ogden area. “That was the biggest inspiration to me and my team, kind of standing back and witnessing another group come together and having it mean so much to them.”
When the flag unfurled, Chugg threw his arms around Fox.
“I wept,” Chugg said. “I wept on his shoulder and thanked him for helping us honor Brent.”
It is impossible to know what that moment meant to each volunteer. I am not sure I can fully describe what it meant to me.
But Chugg is clear about the message he hoped to send to Jennie Taylor and the children of his late friend.
“That we love them,” he said, of the flag that will hang in the canyon for one week. “That we’re going to be here for them long after the services and news crews go home.”
And as for the others, those who serve at home and abroad, he said the way the wind lifted the flag symbolized what veterans mean to our daily lives.
“Thank you for your service doesn’t seem like enough,” he said. “We couldn’t do what we did today without their sacrifice to give us a country with these beautiful freedoms. It sounds completely cliché, but that flag flowing freely reminded me of the freedom we have. … We’re exactly like that flag because of our veterans.”