The Flag Man of First Street

You may not know Jim Phelan but you have likely seen him when you’ve driven down First Street to go to the Farmer’s Market during summer or on virtually any Thursday between the hours of 4:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. That is when you’ll see him, standing on the sidewalk in front of the Veterans Hall, waving the American flag and giving the thumbs-up signal to the scores of cars and trucks that pass by in both directions on Benicia’s busy little central thoroughfare.

On a Thursday recently past, I dropped in on the Flag Man of First Street to see what the experience was like—he’s been waving that flag, by himself, every Thursday for the past 17 years—and to ask him why he does what he does. “I was never in the service,” he told me, “but I’ve always been a big supporter of our country and our men and women in uniform.”

Jim, who’s 83 and still going strong, never flags from his duties as we talk.

He rests the bottom of the flagpole against his stomach above his belt, holding it with either his left or right hand. When the flow of traffic is moving from Military down First, the pole rests in his left hand and he shoots out the thumbs up with his right. If the cars are coming up First towards Military, his hands switch so his right holds the pole and his left does the thumb work.

In response, the people streaming by in their vehicles honk their horns, wave, gun their engines, and return his smile and thumbs up with smiles and upraised thumbs of their own. “There are a lot of people who love seeing the flag,” he says in satisfaction.

To be precise, Jim has been holding forth on First Street doing his flag thing for a full 20 years; in fact February 2024 marks his 20th anniversary on the job.

It all started in 2004, when a group of people unhappy with America’s involvement in the Iraq War staged protests across the street from the Veterans building and placed a row of small American flags along the grass in the park in front of the gazebo.

They placed the flags upside down which struck Phelan as being “very disrespectful.” He was not alone. He and two dozen other residents formed a counter-protest, assembling in front of the hall and waving American flags—right side up—on Thursdays, at the same time and day the upside down flag people were demonstrating across the street. These peaceful dueling examples of American democracy in action continued for years until the bloodshed in Iraq ended and the political climate changed. The upside-downers steadily lost interest as did the right side-uppers, leaving but one solitary figure still holding the Stars and Stripes high.

“Unless we go on vacation or something like that, I’m out here every Thursday,” he says.

But what happens if it rains, I ask him. “I have an umbrella,” he replies, not missing a beat. Though he does admit it’s “tough” in the rain to hold an umbrella and the flagpole at the same time while presenting that optimistic thumbs up.

His son-in-law recently gave him grips for the pole, which helps him hold onto it better. “When it’s cold, the pole gets cold too. By that time I’m wearing my gloves.” Nor does darkness stay him from completing his shift. His usual position is under a lamp pole on the sidewalk, but unfortunately, its light has gone out recently. So, in the winter when the sun goes down before 5:30, he’s standing in the darkness until he finally calls it a night and goes to have a burger at Nation’s.

As we stood together in the declining light, he explained that one of his goals is “to get people used to acknowledging the flag.

Usually, it takes a few seconds for people to react to it, especially if it’s the first time they’ve seen me here.” Small packs of high schoolers and middle schoolers on foot passed by us on the sidewalk. Jim said hi to every one of them. Over the years people have asked to take their picture with him. Kids on bicycles sometimes call out “Honk, honk!” or “America, yeah!” as they pedal past.

Jim has found, to his delight, that young people, particularly 18-to-24 year-olds, are the most supportive of him.

He also says that people in all age groups respond much more positively than they did in the past. Even so, although he plans to remain on flag duty for as long as he’s able, he concedes that it’d be nice to have some company now and then.

“I’d like to get more people out here to fly the flag,” he says. “One or two more people to keep the tradition going and pick up the torch.” If that sounds of interest to you, go talk to Jim about it. You know where to find him.