Last winter, an apartment fire in Claremont, N.H., destroyed all of Levi Blake’s possessions, with the exception of two: the flag presented to Levi’s family at the funeral for his father, Vietnam War U.S. Army veteran Levi Leo Blake Jr., and Levi Jr.’s dog tags.
Levi Jr., a member of Claremont American Legion Post 29, died in 2009. His son, a member of Sons of The American Legion Squadron 29, still remembers what it felt like when he realized the flag had survived the fire.
“Goosebumps. That’s the first thing that comes to mine,” Levi said. “The fact is, everything in that fire was a 110-percent total loss. The flag case burned around the flag, but the flag didn’t burn. You figure it would. That flag shouldn’t have survived, but it did.”
Later on, Levi mentioned to members of Post 29 that his father’s flag had survived, but the display case had not. He asked whether or not something could be done to clean the flag.
“I said, ‘Bring it in,’” Post 29 honor guard commander Dennis Shea Jr. said. “When he brought it in, it was in a plastic bag, and it was soaking wet and smelled like a fire, obviously. We took it upon ourselves, (Post 29 Commander Steve Blish) and I, to take possession of that flag and told Levi not to worry about it, that we would have it cleaned and that we would get a new display case for him. And when did that, we would refold it.”
Shea said one of Post 29’s members, Joe Upperman, runs a series of laundry and dry-cleaning businesses in the area and cleaned it multiple times to make the flag presentable.
With Memorial Day approaching, Shea said the decision was made to return the flag to Levi during the post’s public observance of the holiday. “We could have done it two weeks before, but in order to have the whole honor guard there, and to present the flag, fold it and then present it to (Levi) with a crowd around, it seemed more appropriate to do it that way,” Shea said, adding that being able to give the flag back to Levi felt good.
“It was really emotional,” Shea said. “I’m usually the one in the honor guard that presents flags when there’s no military contingent available for a veteran’s funeral. So anytime I present a flag to a family member, it’s emotional.
“But this one was a little special in its own right because of the story and being involved with it from the beginning. And then being able to give this gentleman back his father’s casket’s flag, it’s special.”
It also was a special moment for Levi. “I felt beyond grateful and blessed,” he said. “Knowing that (the flag) is the only thing besides my father’s dog tags that survived the fire, I just know I was blessed. And I’m grateful for The American Legion. They’re just really good people, and I’m thankful for them.
“I don’t really know how to explain it, to be honest. I know my dad’s still with me, and I strongly feel that.”