With Each Fallen Soldier, a Field of Flags Grows

Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times

Caren Crootof updated the total on Thursday for her field of flags in Middle Grove, N.Y., which honors American soldiers who have been killed in Iraq.

Published: January 6, 2007
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/06/nyregion/06flags.html?_r=1&oref=slogin (must subscribe to NYT to view original article)

MIDDLE GROVE, N.Y., Jan. 4 — The flags are cut from rolls of yellow plastic tablecloth, then woven onto thin wire rods. Each is about as long as a man’s size 7 shoe, as wide as an outstretched hand.

They stand on a sloped corner field framed by a row of conifer trees in this upstate hamlet, spreading in concentric circles like ripples on still water.

From afar, the flags look like clumsily painted dots, an amateur installation of elusive meaning. A closer look yields a clue: a laminated sign with bold black numbers that match the number of flags on the field, numbers that climb almost by the day.

On Sunday, there were 3,000 yellow flags on the ground. By Thursday, five more.

“Just imagine if instead of flags, there were soldiers standing here,” Caren Crootof said as she walked across the field, replacing flags torn or toppled by rain and wind.

Mrs. Crootof, 54, makes the flags, cutting the plastic with scissors at her kitchen table. She plants them most mornings before going to work as a midwife, on the one-acre plot next to the 19th-century farmhouse where she and her husband raised three children. First, she checks a Web site that provides a daily tally of the number of American soldiers killed in the war in Iraq. Then she takes to the field, updates the sign and plants the flags.

It started in July 2004, with 877 flags.

“We all grieved the losses of 9/11, we all shared the pain of those families that lost loved ones in the attacks,” Mrs. Crootof said. “But here we were, losing all this potential, losing heroes who threw their bodies on grenades to save other troops, and I felt that we, as a nation, were doing so little to acknowledge them.

“I just felt compelled to do something,” she added, “and this is what I could do.”

The field of flags is at once poignant and terrifying, plain yet powerful for those who have taken notice in this out-of-the-way town of 2,300 in northeastern New York State. The Crootofs’ field sits at the end of Middle Line Road, which slices through a landscape of rolling hills, silos and grazing cattle. It is just off Route 29, next door to Saratoga Springs.

One recent morning, a truck driver passing by flashed a thumbs-up sign to Mrs. Crootof, who stood in the field like a dark speck on a yellow-gold sea. A few minutes later, a van rolled past the field and its driver honked twice as he steered around the bend.

Just as the van disappeared, Bruce Houser pulled up in a sport utility vehicle and snapped a picture. He first spotted the flags some months ago, while traveling the road on business, but drove back this week, 30 miles from his home in Speigletown, to mark the milestone of 3,000 dead soldiers.

“These flags here, they’re a stark reminder of what the war really means,” Mr. Houser said.

Ankie Meuwissen, 30, who lives opposite Mrs. Crootof, said people often stopped and stared for a moment — mothers with children in tow, working men, couples young and old.

“I don’t know if wonderful is the most appropriate word to describe it,” Ms. Meuwissen said, “but it’s nice that somebody is doing something to remind us what we’re giving up in this war.”

Last Memorial Day, Mrs. Crootof’s daughter, Rebecca, 25, heard taps being played as she was eating breakfast on the sun porch. She stepped outside to find a man playing the piece on a trumpet while standing atop a knoll overlooking the field.

What started as a simple exercise in remembrance has become a vast daily vigil for Mrs. Crootof, a self-professed leftist who has taken part in boisterous antiwar protests in New York City and more subdued ones among her neighbors here.

She abhors the war, but sees the flags as nothing more than a heartfelt way of honoring the troops and sharing the grief of their families.

It is a laborious, tedious task of bending, of burying the rods in the ground. Mrs. Crootof often has help — from her children, who come home during college breaks; from her aging parents, who live nearby; from friends and strangers.

Her husband, Mark, a veterinarian, and their son, Aaron, 18, mow the field in the warm months to keep the wild grass from obscuring the flags; a local 4-H club has offered to take on that task come spring. In the summer of 2005, nine girls from Girl Scout Troop 299 in Ballston Lake, about 15 miles to the south, made 100 flags to replace tattered ones.

“The thing is, we all tend to just go along with our everyday life and forget what’s going on in Iraq,” said Suzanne DeVito, the troop leader at the time. “But when you look at this field and when you step on it and you walk around it, the war becomes very real because you remember that it’s not about bombs and tanks. It’s about people like you and I.”