Ashland's decades-old tradition of displaying flags along Siskiyou Boulevard and other main streets may be suffering a little shrinkage because of the sour economy.

Ashland's decades-old tradition of displaying flags along Siskiyou Boulevard and other main streets may be suffering a little shrinkage because of the sour economy.

But one man, 87-year-old Charlie Beecham, a veteran of 50 World War II combat missions in a B-17, will be riding in a Kiwanis team truck as usual this Fourth of July, pointing out where every one of the 301 flags must go.

For 28 years, the Ashland Kiwanis Club has flown the flags on Memorial Day, Veteran's Day, the Fourth of July and other patriotic occasions. The tradition is made possible by $50-a-year subscriptions by Ashland businesses, each of which gets a flag in front of its shop. For many years before that, the now-defunct Ashland Jaycees did the job.

However, with the down economy, 10 to 15 businesses have told Kiwanians they can't afford it this year. So the club, in its annual subscription drive, is calling on some 250 businesses who have taken out new business licenses this year, says Russ Chadick, co-chairman of the flag drive.

Whether sponsored or not, Beecham said, all flags will go up where they've flown in more prosperous times.

"People need to realize that Ashland is the only place in the country where they put out this many flags 11 times a year — and we need to brag about it," he said.

Funds raised for the patriotic display go to scholarships for Ashland High School graduates, the AHS Key Club, Ashland Youth Baseball, wheelchair ramps, holiday gifts for the needy, flowers for Linda Vista Nursing Center residents, support to teen moms and safety items to newborns at Ashland Community Hospital.

"We're a little more concerned than usual because times are tough and some businesses are closing — but new ones are opening up, too," says Mike Bakke, co-chairman of the drive.

"It's a beautiful display and the vast majority of people feel it's patriotic and a good thing," says Bakke. "It's what we believe in and when you see them blowing in the wind, you feel it's a symbol of our freedom."

Although slow in gait and recovering from a fall that broke a few bones in his hand, Beecham says he'll be in the Kiwanis flag-raising truck, as long as health permits.

On the porch of his house at Wingspread Mobile Home Park in Ashland, Beecham flies a large American flag all day, every day, a reminder of what he fought for during 1943 and 1944, flying 50 daytime missions from a base in Foggia, Italy, and bombing military targets in Eastern Europe — usually under heavy fire.

Beecham, a skilled painter and sculptor who earned his master's degree in fine arts under the GI Bill, displays a painting of his B-17 Flying Fortress on the bombing run over railyards in Budapest, Hungary. It was a mission performed under "intense and accurate anti-aircraft fire, which he evaded," according to the citation accompanying his Distinguished Flying Cross.

"I was leading a squadron of seven planes and flying low to get under a deck of clouds," said Beecham, a retired lieutenant colonel. "My navigator told me to go 30 degrees to the right, then the same to the left and each time a string of flak hit where we would have been if we'd gone straight. We were the only squadron that day to hit the target."

As a testament to the danger of completing 50 missions over German-held territory, Beecham says his plane, nicknamed "Snafu-perman," was shot down soon after his tour of duty, leading to the capture and imprisonment of fellow Ashland resident Leo Zupan, now a close friend of Beecham's.

Those wishing to sponsor flags for this year may call Russ Chadick at 482-0431 or Mike Bakke at 488-8065.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.