This past week I had the good fortune of spending yet another week of vacation time at Cape May NJ. Cape May is amongst my favorite places to be on the planet. A laid back atmosphere, clean beaches, wonderful food and spectacular Victorian architecture are just a few of the many pleasures that the resort town has to offer. Through a system of rigorous saving and financial wizardry on the part of my wife we were able to return to our beach getaway for the seventh time. We never get tired of the town. I doubt we ever will.
One of the things that we put aside at least one evening to do on every visit is to attend the flag ceremony that takes place at Sunset Beach every evening from May to the end of October. This beach is one of the most beautiful places to watch a sunset on the east coast. The scene is a fitting backdrop for a deeply touching event that has been a labor of love and deep respect for a very special man that I had the honor to speak with on this trip.
Our story starts in Collingswood New Jersey where in the 1930s three boys became very close friends. These boys were Joseph Hittorff, Walter Simon and Marvin Hume. As is the case with most groups of school friends there came a time when schooling was over and each boy had to choose a path to follow into adulthood. For Joseph and Walter the United States Navy was the path chosen, and for Marvin it was college.
A few weeks before Christmas of 1941 Marvin Hume’s life, along with the lives of all Americans, was changed forever by the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. This attack robbed Mr. Hume of both of his boyhood friends, Ensign Joseph Hittorff was aboard the USS Oklahoma and Seaman 1st Class Walter Simon was assigned to the USS Arizona. Serving his country in the wake of this cowardly attack was a moral imperative for the heartbroken Hume. He left school and served in the Navy for three years, during which time he saw firsthand the horrors of warfare.
When Mr. Hume finished his service he took a job with McDonnell Aircraft as an engineer, but a lifelong love for minerals, gemstones and fossils led him to abandon aeronautics and open a mineral and fossil shop on the Atlantic City boardwalk. Business at the store was good, and Mr. Hume expanded his business into the wholesale of fossils and minerals to other retailers. One of his customers was the owner of a stretch of beach and gift shop in West Cape May named Preston Shadbolt. One day while making a delivery to Shadbolt’s shop, Mr. Hume was asked if he would be interested in purchasing the property because Shadbolt was ready to retire. A price was set, and a gentleman’s deal was sealed with a handshake that very day.
Preston Shadbolt was an avid Kate Smith fan, and each night when he took the flag down from the old wooden flagpole he played her rendition of “God Bless America”. It had become a tradition over the years, and Mr. Hume assured Mr. Shadbolt that this tradition would continue at Sunset Beach. Marvin Hume not only continued this tradition, but expanded upon it to make it what it is today.
He decided that he would put a twist on the ceremony, and at the same time honor his lost boyhood friends and all other soldiers who fought, and some who died for their country in WWII. Mr. Hume put out a single advertisement in the paper asking if anyone had a casket flag of a veteran that they would like to have flown and taken down with honor at Sunset Beach. This was the first and only ad he needed, flags were being offered at an astonishing rate by families, and some donated by various veterans organizations.
The ceremony, which begins about fifteen minutes before sunset begins with the reading of a brief biography of the individual veteran who is being honored that evening. Then a moment of silence followed by Preston Shadbolt’s favorite “God Bless America” by Kate Smith. Then the National Anthem is played and then Taps as the flag is lowered and taken into hand by Mr. Hume and members of the veteran’s family if they are present. Otherwise help is requested from other veterans present, who step forward proudly to participate in the somber, touching tribute. Then the assembled crowd is left to watch the sun set, with perhaps a different perspective than ever before. I have attended this ceremony numerous times, the experience defies description.
When I decided to post this story, I went to Sunset Beach to search for Marvin Hume. I found him in the fossil and mineral shop surrounded by wind chimes and beautiful quartzes and geodes and fossilized creatures. I was able to speak with Mr. Hume for about twenty minutes, in which time I heard a collection of wonderful stories. I could easily have listened for hours, some stories of war, some of honor and sacrifice and some of Cape May history. He even told me proudly that he was responsible for getting Paul Tibbits, pilot of the Enola Gay that dropped the first atomic bomb, to come to Cape May to promote his newly published memoirs.
“He told me “Marv, Cape May is such a small place” and I told him I would get a large crowd to come. He ended up signing books for five and a half hours”.
“I told people, this is the guy who ended that war.”
So, the ceremony goes on. It will resume sometime this May, as it has under Marvin Hume for 35 years now. At an amazingly spry 87 years old Mr. Hume continues to lower the flag personally every night that the ceremony takes place. He has enough flags already to cover most if not all of 2009.
“Sometimes I don’t come in until five or six in the evening now, at 87 it takes its toll.” he says.
We walked outside and took some pictures. When it was time to leave I shook his hand and told him what an honor it was to meet him. Of course he deflects all praise that he receives by telling you that the men who those flags belong to are the ones who deserve all the honor, he is simply doing what is right. He has remained dedicated to that principle.
I still consider it an honor to have met Marvin Hume.