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Volunteers honor what flag stands for
Volunteer Tom Henry unloads flags from the trailer at Yosemite and Main Friday for the Flags over Manteca effort on Flag Day. - photo by HIME ROMERO

There’s no doubt that Les Thomas loves the American flag.

Anybody that wants to know how much can drive to the corner of Main Street and Yosemite Avenue on any of the major patriotic holidays – Memorial Day, Presidents Day, Labor Day, Veterans Day, etc. – at 4:30 a.m. and see him waiting next to the Flags over Manteca trailer for the volunteers to arrive.

He’s been doing it for more than a decade. He’s been doing it ever since he and then Manteca Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Joe Pellegrino came up with the idea following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001  and the donors, to pull off the $60,000 effort. And he’ll continue doing it as long as he can – forever linked to one of Manteca’s signature events.

It’s respect, he said, for the 50 stars and the 13 stripes and what they represent, that he loves about doing what he does.

“That flag means the United States of America and what we stand for,” he said. “I probably shouldn’t say this, but it’s like God to me. I served in Korea and have a son that’s serving in Germany right now. People who respect the flag have an understanding of the United States and what we represent.

“Manteca, to me, is the most patriotic city or town that I’ve ever been in. Patriotism is alive and well in Manteca, and it shows when the volunteers start pouring in here at 4:30 in the morning.”

Friday’s Flag Day celebration marked the third time in the last 30 days that the crew of volunteers have put out – and then put away – the 2,500 flags that dot Manteca’s arterial streets. They cover Main Street, Yosemite Avenue, Union Road and Louise Avenue. You’ll see them on Center Street. You’ll see them on Maple Avenue.

But for volunteers like John Aguilar, who served in the United States Navy during the Vietnam War, they’re a collection of individual flags. Each one is its own representation, and as a Past Commander of American Legion Post 249, Aguilar knows that representation well.

“We’re here to protect this flag. Through the years it has always represented something,” he said. “I did my time protecting what this flag represents, and a lot of people died trying to do the same. This community is one of the best when it comes to thanking those that have served, and I’m proud to call it my home.

“Where else do you see something like this?”

For the last five years Brenda Rocha has been a regular in Thomas’ stable of volunteers at the Flags over Manteca trailer, and she has come to see the entire set-up and takedown effort become a well-oiled machine.

Volunteers start showing up at 4:30 a.m. to collect the flags that go out on their individual routes – there are 20 of them in all – and she and a handful of regulars are there to make sure that everything get off and back on the truck in one piece.

Some 2,400 individual flags to be exact.

But while regular volunteer commitments sometimes lead to people losing focus about what they’re really doing, Rocha has always maintained her understanding of what the American flag represents and why she’s doing what she does.

“This means our country – the United States of America,” she said in between deliveries. “It’s a symbol of the freedoms that we have and the ones that we enjoy every day. It’s important to remember that.”