Mike Angelastro rolled his 2001 Harley Ultra Classic off the ferry from Skagway on Thursday night and rode into town as a man on a mission. In his saddlebags he carried five flags to be raised over the Capitol in a small ceremony the following morning.
Angelastro, a master sergeant and flight engineer in the Air Force Reserve whose unit was activated Sept. 11, is riding his Harley to the capitals of all 50 states to raise the flags of the United States, the New York Police Department, the Fire Department of New York, former New York Mayor Rudolf Giuliani and the Revolutionary War era-flag that features a coiled serpent with the motto "Don't tread on me."
Angelastro said the idea for this odyssey came when he looked at a now-famous photo of the three firefighters raising the U.S. flag over the rubble at the World Trade Center site.
"I thought it would be nice to do something to honor those guys. A lot of firefighters died that day. I thought about taking an American flag around to all the state capitals, and then I thought, 'Hey, what about the Port Authority and the NYPD. What about those guys?' "
He originally shrugged it off as a whim at the moment. But a few weeks later, after hearing rumors his outfit was about to be demobilized, he went to his commanding officer with the idea and received a favorable response.
"Then I made the fatal mistake of calling my buddy down in Georgia. I thought he'd talk me out of it," he said.
But his friend, Gregg Alspach of Buford, Ga., thought it was a great idea and volunteered to handle logistics, planning and communications.
In return, Alspach asked Angelastro to carry the "Don't tread on me" flag and collect signatures on it along the way. He has nearly filled one with more than 150 names and has ordered another.
It was signed in Juneau by Bob King, Gov. Tony Knowles' press secretary. King participated in Friday's ceremony since the governor was in Anchorage for the funeral of former Public Safety Commissioner Glen Godfrey.
Angelastro said he left Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee, Mass., on July 24, en route to his first stop at Hartford, Conn. Now, more than 9,200 miles later, Juneau is his 23rd capital.
"Juneau is the only place we preplanned," he remarked, "Everything revolved around Juneau, and it was planned before I pulled out on the motorcycle."
Angelastro is traveling light, with only a few changes of the basics and the flags filling his saddlebags, in addition to leathers, a spare helmet and some rain gear. "Most of the gear I carried on this trip was for Alaska, really. No luxuries."
He reported a persistent problem with the Harley spewing oil, and a loss of brakes in the mountains near Denver.
"But it's a Harley," he shrugged. "You've just gotta work with it."
Weather has not been a problem, he said, mentioning a blessing from the base chaplain upon his departure.
"He must have made a phone call or something, because all this time it's either rained before I got there, or rained after I left, but I've ridden every single day, sometimes 20 hours a day, and it's rained on me maybe a total of an hour."
Angelastro said his mission has been hard work.
"I'm enjoying what we're trying to accomplish, and it's all been really great, but it hasn't been fun."
He had been awed by the sight of the northern lights while rolling across the Dakotas at night, and dazzled by the scenery between Whitehorse and Skagway. Recalling the rigors of riding a motorcycle up the Alaska Highway, he said he looked forward to the voyage south on the ferry, which began Sunday after a stay at the Alaska Wolf House bed-and breakfast.
His next capital will be Olympia, Wash., then Boise, Idaho, Salem, Ore., and Sacramento, Calif. He then will ride to Los Angeles, and fly to Honolulu, rent a Harley to ride to the Capitol and raise the flags, and return by plane the next morning.
From there he will ride through the capitals of the South, and then back up to New York, where he'll make his presentation of the flags Sept. 11 in Albany.
Following that ceremony, the flags will be returned to their respective organizations in New York City by a convoy of motorcycles.
"We've tried to involve as many people in this as we possibly can," he said. "It's been a team effort from the very start. I'm on the motorcycle alone, but I'm never by myself."
Phil Greeney is a Juneau free-lance writer.