BRICK – The mystery unfurled here over eight months in the Midstreams neighborhood, beginning on Carroll Fox Road, then up Ernestine Place and eventually out to busy Jordan Road heading north to its end at Route 88.
There were these flags. They kept popping up each week on utility poles, two at a time, the stars and stripes flapping overhead and creating a sort of boulevard of cryptic patriotism.
Passersby were curious. Some neighbors even got a little irked; by law you weren't supposed to have anything on the utility poles, after all.
Where were these flags coming from, and why?
About 7,000 miles east, Marine Lance Cpl. Mark Hentges was patrolling Helmand Province, Afghanistan, and oblivious to any of the covert operations back home. But it turns the flags were for him — or, half of the 60 or so flags raised in the neighborhood were.
"He is definitely our local hero," said his mother, Lori Hentges. "We might not be able to celebrate everybody, but you can do one. So the whole two flags —one was for Mark and one was for everyone else that's deployed."
Lori Hentges, 45, and her husband, Rob, 46, knew when Mark left last September for deployment to Afghanistan that they wanted to mark his eventual return home with a hero's welcome. They were proud. Mark, a 2011 graduate of Brick Memorial High School, had set his sights on a career in law enforcment, and he chose to begin his route there by serving in the armed forces. He put college on hold and signed up for the U.S. Marines. He chose to become an infantryman, and his parents were unnerved to think that the 8-year-old boy who held a candle at a 9/11 vigil at Windward Beach in 2001 would be a 21-year-old carrying a rifle in the same war that erupted after the attacks on the World Trade Center.
While stationed at Camp Dwyer in Afghanistan, Mark Hentges kept regular contact with his girlfriend and family, who would send care packages of items like bread, candy, protein bars and, naturally, New Jersey's exclusive and revered salty meat, pork roll, every Saturday.
And on Sundays, under the cover of night, Lori and Rob Hentges would head out with a ladder, a cordless drill and two three-foot-by-five-foot American flags. Rob Hentges, a barrel-chested engineer, would climb the ladder (to the same step each time, for uniformity's sake)and screw a bracket into the utility pole, then slide the flag into the bracket. Lori Hentges, meanwhile, would tie a homemade yellow bow around the pole.
Well aware that decorating a utility pole is illegal, the Hentges continued this routine at night to avoid being found out.
"We figured it would be easier to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission," Lori Hentges said.
But then it got cold and they moved their operation to the warmer hours when the sun was out. That's when the Hentges' Sunday stealth project became a neighborhood routine.
"We met multitudes of people that would stop, people gave us money toward the flags. Two times we actually had to chop some of (the neighbors') trees down to get to the pole; they had no problem letting us on their yards," Lori Hentges said.
One woman on Jordan Road even called town hall to complain.
"Why didn't she have a flag put on her pole when everybody else had flags?" Mark Hentges recalled. "They had to tell her, 'We have no idea who's putting these flags up.' "
More flags, more support
As more flags appeared, the more irritated 79-year-old Dick Gauer became. A retired welder and pipefitter who lives on Harbor Road, Gauer pulled up to a police officer one day and asked him if he knew why the flags were there.
"He said, 'I have no idea what they're for,'" Gauer recalled. "Well now that annoyed me a little bit."
A day or two later, with yet more flags flying overhead, Gauer hopped out of his white pickup to question some firefighters at the nearby department if they knew anything about the flags. Nope, they told him.
Then one day he was driving down Jordan Road, "and here's a man and a woman putting a flag up on a flag pole."
"You know I'm going to stop," Gauer said. "That's when I found out exactly what was going on."
Gauer, who carries a pool skimmer in the bed of his truck, immediately offered to be part of the plan. From then on, every day he would drive around the neighborhood keeping an eye out for flags snagged in branches and loosen them with his skimmer. When some flags' brackets broke, he went to Home Depot and called the bracket manufacturer, Valley Forge Flag, and cadged an ample supply of replacement brackets, poles and screws. He said being part of the flag project was more pleasure than duty.
"It's been such a good experience for me, and it made me feel good," said Gauer, an Army veteran. "I think it made other people feel good, even if they just blow their horn going down the street."
Another curious neighbor was Dave Wolfe, an assemblyman who represents Ocean County and whose son served in Afghanistan with the Army. About three weeks ago, after months of wondering, the lawmaker ran into the Hentges' and found out about their project.
"Unless you live in this part of town and drove down that road, you never really would know it. But what a great gesture," Wolfe said. "It's almost like a Jimmy Stewart movie."
It has certainly been a feel-good time for the Hentges family. Mark Hentges has been home on leave since June 9, spending time at home and with his girlfriend and sporadically meeting strangers who pull up to his house, which is festooned with American flags and Marine Corps memorabilia, and ask to meet him. One recent evening two men pulled up to shake his hand.
The town council even proclaimed June 26 "Lance Corporal Mark Hentges Day" in appreciation of his service.
And, perhaps most reassuring, Hentges said his infantry unit is being disbanded, meaning there are no plans for him to return to Afghanistan, which, like Iraq, is erupting back into chaos. Hentges is scheduled to return to his base at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina on July 7, then head to Asia for six months of training. He has two years left in his enlistment.
Hentges is quiet and humble, but says he appreciates the neighborhood's gesture to make him feel not just honored, but like a celebrity. He first caught sight of the flags when he returned home for 96-hour leave at the end of May. He was driving with his sister, Kim, and the car was being escorted by the local police and fire department. He didn't realize until they traveled well down the road what was going on.
"I looked up and as far as I could see down Jordan (Road) it was flags," he said. "I'm just thankful that they did that. It's nice to know they did something, and a lot of people care about it."