CAPE MAY POINT, N.J. - As the sun melted into the Delaware Bay here at the southern tip of New Jersey, Marvin Hume looked up at the American flag flapping in a brisk sea breeze.
Kate Smith's "God Bless America" projected over the speakers and onto Sunset Beach in front of him, where a crowd of 100 stood expectantly. Then came the National Anthem.
When "Taps" began to play, Hume, 87, nodded at the man next to him. He held one side of a thick rope tight while the man tugged at the other, lowering the flag inch-by-inch. As it reached the bottom of the steel pole, Hume unclipped it and showed the man how to fold it: stripes first, with tight, neat folds.
"Get the blues out in front," Hume said, his weathered hands moving surely. "Tuck that end in. That way, we don't have any red showing."
Wrinkled veterans stood and watched. So did families carrying babies and couples ending a perfect, long weekend together, holding hands.
Honoring patriotism and sacrifice typically doesn't much enter into vacation planning, but Hume's ceremony is special, a 35-year tradition made more solemn last night by the Memorial Day holiday.
"I just had to come tonight," said Dan Check, the man who stood at Hume's side and volunteered to help lower the flag. Check, 58, a Navy veteran from Horsham, traveled to Cape May especially for the ceremony.
Hume's ritual is the same, May to October, big crowds or sparse, as long as the weather is nice.
Last night's crowd was small compared with the hundreds that might jam the beach on a gorgeous night in the high season, but Hume didn't mind.
"I live for this," said Hume, an engineer whose passion for minerals spawned a career as a successful Shore shopkeeper. "This has grown to be a very serious thing in my life."
Hume owns Sunset Beach Gift Shops here, and has been conducting the ceremony since 1973, when he bought the business from Preston Shadbolt, an Army veteran who began the tradition in the late 1950s.
Shadbolt's ceremony was modest - a wooden flagpole, a scratchy Kate Smith record. When some local youths broke the flagpole in half 25 years ago, Hume secured a tall steel flagpole from a nearby factory, and five Coast Guard officers bolted it down.
Hume also put an ad in a local paper asking to borrow flags that had been draped over veterans' caskets to fly over Sunset Beach.
"That was the only ad I ever needed," Hume said. Already, he has flags booked through this summer, and some signed up for next year.
He has flown flags of World War II veterans, Korean War and Vietnam War veterans. In recent years, he's flown two flags from Iraq war veterans.
"That really upsets me," he said. "More than 4,000 dead now. That should not be."
Each night, each flag has a story, and Hume recalls many of them - told by the neighbors, customers, and strangers who own them. He particularly cherishes the memory of a disabled boy who helped him lower the flag one night and began crying when the fabric touched his hands.
"This is the proudest day of my life," the boy told him.
Yesterday, Hume broke from tradition and flew a flag meant to honor not one individual soldier but all of them.
That means everything to Michael Teiper of Harrison Township, who brought his children, Jonathan, 6, and Gracie, 4, to watch the ceremony. His father, Lt. Richard B. Teiper, was a Navy radar officer who was given the flag from the destroyer USS Boyd during World War II. The flag has been flown once a year, on Memorial Day, for 62 years.
Yesterday, it flew over Sunset Beach.
Its frayed edges and bullet holes mean something special to Teiper, who since 2002 has made a day trip to the Shore every Memorial Day to keep a promise to his father, now gone. "It represents so many guys," said Teiper, 51. "My father held this flag, but it's really a flag for all the men and women who served."
Hume is unapologetically patriotic, a Navy veteran who lost two close friends in Pearl Harbor.
The ceremony is simple - no fancy equipment, no fireworks.
"We would ask the gentlemen to remove their caps, and ask the parents of young children to keep them by their side and explain the purpose of this ceremony to them," Hume told the crowd
He times things so people can turn around and watch the sun dip into the bay, orange and pink and glorious, just after the flag is lowered.
After the 10-minute ceremony concluded, Hume watched the crowd disperse to their cars and to Sunset Beach to look for Cape May diamonds, and he smiled.
Though he comes to work seven days a week, Hume is legally blind and has handed off day-to-day operations of the business to his son and daughters. But he hopes to do the ceremony for many summers to come.
"Well, I'm 87 now, and I don't know how many years I have left," Hume said, a twinkle in his eye. "Maybe 50 or 60. But when I'm gone, my family will continue it. It is a very important thing."