When Ski Demski Wants to Roll Out the Banner, Patriotism Takes on New Dimensions

Times Staff Writer

Thomas (Ski) Demski isn't your typical flag waver. In fact, one would be hard pressed to wave one of Demski's flags.

That's because Demski, 56, owns what may well be the largest American flags in the country.

There are 10 in his collection. For starters, there's the 47-by-82-foot Stars and Stripes Demski unfurls on special occasions atop a 132-foot pole in front of his house. More impressive still is a 95-by-160 footer that was rolled out by a military drill team during pregame ceremonies for Super Bowl XVIII in Tampa, Fla.

And then there's the grand-daddy of them all, a 160-by-300-foot colossus that would have prompted Betsy Ross to put away her needle and thread.

Those watching the pregame show at the Holiday Bowl in San Diego or the Fiesta Bowl in Phoenix probably got a glimpse of the massive banner, which Demski has dubbed "Super Flag."

The Long Beach resident purchased the 1,200-pound flag for $1,000 from a firm that normally makes dirigibles. Demski transports his huge Old Glory in a renovated hearse he calls his "flag car." It takes 250 people to unfurl the gigantic flag, which covers an entire football field.

Demski has other pursuits that are decidedly more down-to-earth. During the past two years, Demski has undertaken a campaign to get Long Beach officials to begin painting crosswalks again.

In recent years, city officials have taken to leaving the walks unmarked after a street is repaved, reasoning that the traditional painted lines only give pedestrians a false sense of security while crossing busy intersections.

Demski, however, sees it differently. He contends city officials have refused to paint the lines merely to save money. In the meantime, the dearth of painted crosswalks has caused a noticeable jump in the number of traffic deaths in Long Beach, he maintains.

City officials acknowledge the number of pedestrian deaths rose to 26 during 1985, compared with 11 in 1984 and 22 in 1983. There is no trend suggesting unpainted crosswalks have caused the increase, they say, since five of the 1985 deaths occurred in marked walks, three in unmarked intersections and the rest in mid-block.

In recent months, Demski has pleaded with city officials to begin painting the lines again, but to no avail.

Frustrated and angry, Demski has decided to take his crusade to the people, declaring himself a candidate for the 1st District council seat being vacated by Marc Wilder.

Although something of a one-issue candidate, Demski feels he will win. If so, Demski promises, he will inject a sizable dose of patriotism, a spirit he says is lacking in Long Beach.

"I'd like to see this town get back to being an all-American town," he said.

And if he loses, Demski will always have his flags.

Demski, a stout fellow with a head of slicked-back gray hair, has financed his patriotic passion (he estimates the value of his specially tailored flags at more than $50,000) through a mail-order bumper-sticker business he runs. Demski manufactures hundreds of different kinds of stickers in a downstairs shop in his home at Lime Avenue and 4th Street.

He shares the house, a converted four-plex, with 16 exotic birds, among them a dove, several species of parrots and a scarlet macaw named Ruby. The birds have the run of the place, sitting atop their cages and squawking happily whenever Demski enters the room.

On the outside, the house is adorned with a large American eagle and blue signs on two corners reading "The Pole," a backhanded tribute both to the towering flagpole and Demski's Polish heritage.

Demski's father immigrated from Poland and became a coal miner in Nanticoke, Pa. As a young adult, Demski followed his father into the mines, toiling for three years until a 1950 cave-in that trapped a co-worker convinced Demski to search for a better life.

He moved west, finally settling in Long Beach in 1958. Demski worked for two decades as a heavy-equipment operator before establishing the bumper-sticker business about 10 years ago.

Although he has been a patriotic sort since his youth, Demski didn't begin collecting his jumbo-sized flags until 1980. He recalls seeing a large American flag while driving along the freeway one day and deciding that it might be fun to make one of his own.

But what began as a whim soon turned serious. When news of Demski's plans for the 132-foot flagpole reached City Hall, building department officials issued an order blocking the project. Demski, however, fought it before the City Council and won.

"I was ready to go to jail on it," Demski recalled proudly. "In fact, I even made the National Enquirer because of the whole thing."

The fight was well worth it. Once the pole was up, Demski noticed "how people enjoyed it, how much I enjoyed it." Fueled by that gratification, Demski decided that bigger could only mean better and began planning a 300-foot flagpole.

Once again he met opposition, this time from neighbors who weren't thrilled about the prospect of living in the shadow of a 30-story, 19-ton pole. They protested and the City Council enacted an ordinance setting a 25-foot height limit on flagpoles in residential areas. It scotched Demski's plans.

Despite that setback, Demski's patriotic spirit remains intact. He says it's something that will never waver.

"When I die," Demski said, "the person that gets my place has got to agree to two things--they've got to take care of the birds and they've got to fly the flag."

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