His New York neighborhood is star-spangled on the Fourth, and every day.
Abrew Street, a short, leafy stretch lined with modest cape-style homes in Bay Shore, a town on the South Shore of Long Island, New York, serves as a shortcut to the local mall, and stands out to the sharp eye because many of its houses bear an identical homemade American flag made of wood slats.
They are the handiwork of Gerald Goldman, 94, who served in World War II in the Marine Corps, and who now claims distinction as having the longest tenure — 61 years — on Abrew Street.
A few years back he began making the hand-painted flags for friends and neighbors.
“I wanted to see a flag on every house,” says Goldman. It has been 240 years since a flag with 13 stars and 13 stripes — the Betsy Ross style — was adopted as the country’s official flag.
This is the style Goldman makes out of five horizontal wooden slats — reducing the number of stripes to five — some twopenny nails, and red, white and blue craft paint he buys at a nearby Lowe’s.
Goldman is long retired from selling construction material, and his wife, Marjorie, died 22 years ago from leukemia. To keep busy, he dabbles in woodworking, and he began making the flags from old wooden stockade fences that have largely given way to white plastic versions.
“It started when a neighbor came by and said she liked the one I put up on my house,” he says. “I had a few extras, so I gave her one. Then I started giving them to everyone on the block.”
The signs he makes for the neighborhood are free, but with one condition: They have to be displayed outside.
That was fine with Joseph Lachat, two doors down from Goldman. He happily took one. So did Marianne Davis, who asked her husband, Robert, if he wanted to display one.
Of course, says Robert Davis, who flew helicopters during the Vietnam War.
“One by one, I started seeing them in the whole neighborhood,” Marianne Davis says. “There was a woman on the block with a son in the military, in Afghanistan, so Gerry gave her one, too.”
When Marianne Davis’ flag became weather-beaten, Goldman happily walked over and repainted it.
“I get annoyed if they don’t look good, if people let them get crooked or whatever,” says Goldman, who grew up in Queens and enlisted in the Marine Corps after an attempt to be a Navy pilot fizzled. After the war, he began hanging drywall and later became a sales agent in the industry.
By his count, 31 neighbors on the block took a flag and displayed it, he says, but he kept making more, giving them to anyone who promised to display it.
A local fence installer, Rite Fence, in Islip, New York, began leaving him old slats from fences that were replaced. Eventually, Goldman branched out and began selling flags to local stores. In all, he estimates that he has made around 500 flags for friends, neighbors and stores.
His son, a schoolteacher in the Hamptons, had a connection with a gift shop there, and Goldman offered his flags wholesale for $20 each.
“The owner said she’d take 10 flags and planned on asking $48 for them,” Goldman recalls. “I thought, ‘She’s out of her mind,’ but she sold all 10, like that.”
The store owner also suggested that Goldman add a special touch to the flags by attaching a small tag describing his military service. So he began handwriting the tags: “Gerry was a Marine machine-gunner and radio man on a B-25 bomber in the South Pacific during W.W.2.”
Then Goldman’s daughter-in-law, an art buff, advised him to call the flags “folk art” and affix a black-and-white photograph he had of himself in uniform, proudly standing in front of the bomber when he was with the 1st Marine Air Wing.
Goldman began attaching the photo to the flag with a caption: “Corporal Gerald E. Goldman in 1943. Semper Fi.”
“I think it’s all silly,” he says of the fancy labeling ideas. “But what the hell.”
When his children asked him to stop using his basement wood shop, fearing he might fall on the stairs, Goldman began cutting the slats on a table saw in his garage and fabricating the flags on his kitchen table over a few sheets of newspaper.
Goldman is affable and witty. But he is also a tough old Marine, known for his proclivity to drop and bang out 100 push-ups — at least until recent years.
So though the flags have a rough, rustic look, they are identically made, one at a time, and precisely 20 inches long.
“If I was younger, I could make more, but I don’t want to go around peddling them,” he says.
After the East Hampton store closed, he did ask some other shops if they would sell the flags on consignment. Several declined, but others took them and sold them briskly for around $40, he says.
One was the Nook and Cranny gift store in Islip, whose owner, Lori Zegel, says she was smitten with the sturdy old Marine who drives over more flags as needed.
“He believes that everyone should have a flag in front of their home,” she says. “How can you not love him?”
“Plus the fact that he built them for all his neighbors — that just got my heart,” says Zegel, who says she has sold about 150 flags.
“I have people from all over Long Island asking for them because they heard about them, but they don’t know where to get them,” she says. “Policemen, firemen, veterans — they love the concept of Gerry’s flags.”
Zegel invited Goldman recently to a veterans’ dinner where one of his flags commanded $150 in a fundraising auction.
Goldman found this hilarious, but he is undeniably proud of his flags and that buyers have taken them home across the country.
“They’re in 12 states now,” he says.
“I can knock one out in an hour,” he says. “If it took four to five hours, I wouldn’t give them away so easy.”