TAMPA — This is where Marion Lambert fights his war, on a 4-acre farm at the end of a shaded residential street in South Tampa. This is where the phone rings at all hours, ever since a St. Petersburg Times story linked him with the Sons of Confederate Veterans and their flag.
There is no air conditioning, yet the house is cool. Ceiling fans and a light breeze do all the work. A well-worn pair of boots in the living room sits next to a wood stove for colder weather, not far from a wall painting of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
"Have a seat, get comfortable," he says. Ever the gentleman.
Lambert, 60, is pinched, lean, creased, 128 pounds, legs so bowed, neighbors of his Confederate flag site have given him a nickname: "Old Crane Legs."
In front of a wide gate along S Second Street, Lambert keeps an old-fashioned wooden stand stocked with honey from his hives. Take a jar, and leave $6 in the slot. The honor system.
Beyond the gate, a black-and-white, square-headed mutt named Nickey trots alongside visitors to the rear of the property, where a blue-and-white Christian flag flies. A quarter horse named Noah nuzzles up to strangers as a donkey, Thomas, stands still nearby.
All the hoofed animals have biblical names except a cow, Lilly Belle, and a pig in a corner pen. "We don't name what we are going to eat."
Newspapers have profiled the welder and beekeeper. One called him an "urban cowboy."
But that script has undergone a drastic rewrite. The new story is Marion Lambert, the man who snookered Hillsborough County.
In a social climate where the red flag with diagonal blue bars equates to ignorance, Lambert makes an unlikely centerpiece.
He was born in Pensacola, a scrawny child whose father died when Marion was 3. "Everyone picked on me," he said. "I was the last one picked for any team."
He retreated to books. He read the World Book Encyclopedia. And he especially read about Confederate soldiers, as four of his ancestors had been. He wanted to be tough, like them.
At a teenager he found God and learned to surf, grew long hair, smoked pot and marched against the Vietnam War. He traveled the East Coast and California in search of waves.
The civil rights movement? "I was very much in favor of it."
In the early 1970s, he completed academic work on a master's degree in clinical psychology from the University of West Florida. Other priorities intervened before he finished his internship — a daughter on the way, a resurgence of religious faith and life on the farm, he said.
"It just got to the point where I would rather have a relationship with my family and a cow," he said. He quit school and got a job digging ditches.
He raised cattle and welded through the 1970s, the decade when Lynyrd Skynyrd turned the Confederate flag into a concert prop. The Dukes of Hazzard flew over dirt roads in a Dodge Charger with the Rebel flag painted on the roof.
The Ku Klux Klan used the flag as a protest symbol, said John Coski, author of The Confederate Battle Flag: America's Most Embattled Emblem.
With the upsurge of white supremacy groups in the 1980s, the flag came to be seen less as an emblem of regional pride, and more as thinly masked hate. Along with kids who thought the flag looked cool on their trucks came skinheads, the Aryan Nations and similar groups.
"Defiance of authority on a level of neo-Nazi resentment of the status quo, too, has antecedents," Coski said. "What we think of as skinheads is relatively new, but the sentiment they represent is not new."
In a 1991 resolution, the NAACP declared the Confederate flag an "ugly symbol of idiotic white supremacy," an "odious blight upon the universe."
"It slapped me in the face," Lambert said. "It told me, 'Something is wrong.' "
In January 2007, the Hillsborough commissioners honored the 200th birthday of Robert E. Lee, but faced criticism for doing so. They did not recognize Lee's birthday in 2008.
After years of granting the Sons of Confederate Veterans' request to proclaim April "Southern Heritage Month," commissioners balked in 2007.
Meanwhile, the Sons of Confederate Veterans in 2006 submitted a design for "Confederate Heritage" license plates to the state. The Confederate flag design has led for calls to end specialty plates altogether.
Frustrated by all this, Lambert showed up at commission meetings, promising a "surprise."
Heritage or hate?
By now, many who saw the 30- by 50-foot Confederate flag flying southeast of Interstates 4 and 75 have heard how it got there. Lambert bought the land in 2004, and got permits to build a park to honor "American veterans."
"They never asked me jack," Lambert said of the county.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans raised the flag on the morning of June 3, and lowered it that same evening, marking the 200th birthday of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
But it will likely fly 24 hours a day, lighted by spotlights at night, even before 2009, when a granite monument is erected.
"This is an inroad into the mind of society," Lambert said.
The display on June 3 drew strong outrage and also support, and an unsuccessful plea from the commission to take it down.
A community activist held up photos of lynchings. Was this the kind of past Lambert wanted to glorify? He was unmoved. People who equate the Confederacy with slavery are wrong, he says.
The local controversy has generated enthusiastic online comments on Stormfront White Nationalist Community, a white separatist Web site.
"It doesn't please me," Lambert said of support from the likes of Stormfront. "There's nut cases everywhere."
Lambert once belonged to League of the South, whose founder has called for "the revitalization of general European cultural hegemony" and condemned interracial marriage. Because of those positions and others like them, the Southern Poverty Law Center branded it a hate group.
Lambert said he was a member for two years. He left due to "philosophical differences."
Today, he can't wait until the Confederate battle flag — his flag — flies permanently over two interstate highways. A committee from the National Football League is planning the 2012 Super Bowl at Raymond James Stadium. What will the NFL think about all of those visitors confronting that flag?
"Hoo boy," Lambert cackled. "We've been looking forward to this.''
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (813) 661-2431 or [email protected]