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Behind the Scenes: Ironworker's ritual touches the heart

  • Story Highlights
  • Patriotism is often grandly on display in the nation's capital, writer notes
  • But a simple tradition, usually performed away from cameras, touches him more
  • CNN crew sees ironworkers' ritual of planting flag on top of new building
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By Mike M. Ahlers
CNN
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In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news. Here, Mike M. Ahlers is moved by a chance encounter with tradition.

An ironworker looks at the unfurled American flag he placed atop a new building.

An ironworker looks at the unfurled American flag he placed atop a new building.

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- I almost didn't notice.

But last week, while standing with a CNN cameraman in the lobby of a Washington-area airport, I glanced out a window and saw an ironworker walking atop a newly constructed building. He was holding something in his hand.

My cameraman saw it too, and swung his camera around, zooming in tight.

The ironworker planted the object -- a pole -- on the exposed steel. He held it steady while a colleague bent over and welded it there. When they were done, the ironworker unfurled an American flag and let it flap in the strong wind. Video Watch what the CNN crew saw »

This town is no stranger to overt displays of patriotism. In fact, we excel at it. There is a statue to every Civil War general of consequence here, and you could go broke feeding copper oats to all their bronze horses. The city's grand avenues were designed with grand parades in mind, and on certain holidays -- notably the Fourth of July -- our patriotism erupts in fiery displays of nationalistic pride.

We are masters of the majestic, princes of pageantry. It's what we do. Washington inhales the triumphs and tragedies of the American experience, and exhales the traditions we remember them by.

Ironworkers, it turns out, also have their traditions. And one ironworker tradition is to "top off" newly completed structures with flags, if the spirit moves them.

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So, his work done, the ironworker stepped back and faced the flag. He stood up straight. He squared his shoulders.

And it occurred to me that some of this town's most heartfelt rituals aren't those we put on public display, but rather are those we rarely see -- a young widow's visit to Arlington, an old man lighting a candle in a dark vestibule, and an ironworker's solitary salute.

All About Washington, DC

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