In southeast Tulsa, among dozens of strip centers whose anodyne facades betray all manner of capitalistic guts within, stands Liberty Flags, a multi-story facility treated in beige stucco and capped with one of those metal roofs purported to last a lifetime.
Liberty Flags, founded by a Russian immigrant at the apex of the Cold War, is one of the largest distributors of American flags in the country—and they only sell American flags made in the United States.
It turns out, like most things, there’s a good deal that goes into making a flag—at least one that’s not been made in China.
First of all, there’s the smell—or lack thereof—when you pull the flag out its plastic bag.
“Do you smell fish?” Charlotte Zakharian asks.
I shake my head.
“That’s because this flag didn’t ride over on a boat from China. It’s 100 percent made in the United States. The thread, the fabric, the dye that dyes the fabric, the grommets—it’s not shipped some place and assembled and shipped back. It’s made in America by American workers in a factory in the United States.”
Zakharian is a petite woman with striking black hair and porcelain skin. On this day she is wearing a black sweater and a delicate chain necklace bearing a cross that rests near her clavicle. She has long, elegant fingers that have obviously performed this presentation before.
“Take a look at this stitching,” she says. “First of all, note that the flag has red stitching where there are red stripes and white stitching where there are white stripes. And these are lock stitches, which means that if the thread breaks at any point, it won’t run beyond the next stitch.” Indeed, American flags made in America, by Americans, are a premium product.
In the late ‘70s, when Charlotte’s father, Arthur Zakharian, moved his family to Tulsa from Northwest Arkansas, they had somehow lost the flag that had decorated their previous residence.
“When I was growing up, we always had an American flag displayed at the house,” said Charlotte, the youngest of Art’s children, and proprietor of Liberty Flags. “Dad went out to purchase a new flag kit and he couldn’t find one that had been made in the United States. Well, this upset him, and he didn’t even come home with one.”
American flags made in America, by Americans, are a premium product.
So what does it matter, really? We buy any number of things tailored to our patriotic sensibilities that aren’t made in the good ol’ U S of A—fireworks, those replicas for our battles for freedom, come to mind. I can’t help but recall, without even trying, that iconic “Black Cat” illustration, itself so foreign and Far Eastern to me as a child, accompanied by the words “MADE IN CHINA.”
It mattered a great deal to Art Zakharian because, for the first 19 years of his life, he was a man without a country. Born in Rostov-on-Don, Soviet Union, to Armenian Russian Orthodox parents, Art was frequently smuggled into church under his grandmother’s ample cloak. Pre-WWII, Stalin would let the elderly continue to worship, but Zakharian’s parents wouldn’t be afforded the same courtesy. Art’s father, absent a Soviet passport, was charged with “crimes” and sent to prison in Siberia. His mother took their children and fled to an Armenian community in Tehran. He probably could have had a decent life there if he hadn’t suffered from polio, but, the fact is, even today the physically disabled are discriminated against widely in Iran: passed over for jobs, ill-considered for marriage, pushed to the fringes of society. Art had to take a chance and find a way to get to the United States and find a path to citizenship, and a life worth living. He had to find a country to call his own.
Fortunately for Zakharian, there were American G.I.s posted in Tehran after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. I can’t imagine the nerve it took to find a way to hobble out to those Green Giants and ask them in broken English how he might find a better life in the United States, but I suppose I’ve never been as brave or determined as Zakharian.
“He came to the U.S. to have surgery when he was 19,” Charlotte tells me. “He came in through Idlewild, which is now Kennedy, in New York, and he was immediately hospitalized and had some surgeries on his legs.
“His parents thought the he was coming back home,” Charlotte says. “He had other plans.
“He learned English from the nurses in the hospital while going through rehab and physical therapy,” Charlotte explains, “and he started applying for colleges.” The G.I.s he met in Tehran had told him that if he came to the U.S., he needed to stay out of the major metropolitan areas and come to the middle of the country where the competition for jobs would be less arduous. “He would have a better opportunity in less populated areas,” Charlotte says.
People sometimes thought it strange to be approached about buying American flags from a “foreigner.”
Art got a business degree from Arkansas State University, where he met Charlotte’s mother, a native Missourian, at a basketball game. In college, he had a job delivering dry cleaning on a bicycle. Never mind he couldn’t ride it; he just pushed it with his legs and coasted while the laundry swung on the handlebars. The way he figured it: at least he wasn’t in a wheelchair. He came to Tulsa first as an accountant and bounced back and forth from here to Northwest Arkansas in various business capacities. “He was very good at taking existing businesses that were underperforming and bringing them back to profitability,” Charlotte says. “He was also a great salesmen. He was a charmer.”
In June of 1982, Art Zakharian finally got his chance to start his own business, Liberty Flags. With an ailing Brezhnev at the helm of the Soviet Union, a Russian man, who had developed a deep sense of patriotism for a country that finally gave him a place to call home, set up shop in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with the intention of educating people about the craftsmanship inherent to American-made flags.
He walked with a limp. He spoke with an accent. People sometimes thought it strange to be approached about buying American flags from a “foreigner.” But, Arthur Zakharian was nothing if not a man of conviction.
“He was convinced that this was the best country in the world,” says Charlotte. “And he was proud of his work.”
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 11, June 1, 2014