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Editor’s note: this article first appeared in THE AMERICAN on May 27, 2011.
When I was a kid we called it Decoration Day and, in a practice observed since 1868, it always came on May 30.
Early on that morning or a day or two before it, in the soft twilight of a spring evening, folks would walk through the local cemeteries with baskets of flowers or small American flags to decorate the graves of soldiers, sailors, and airmen.
In my little crossroads village of Rector, Pennsylvania, a simple rectangular war memorial stood flanked by juniper bushes on a little triangle of grass beside the macadam road. It had been built from water-smoothed stones hauled out of nearby Linn Run Creek. The stone framed a glass-covered board on which appeared the names of all the men from the surrounding hills and farms who had served in the two world wars.
Occasionally, during a lull in the games we played on the green around the memorial, we boys would ponder the familiar names there under the glass and note the little star beside those of men who had died on some distant field or stretch of water–some school friend’s grandfather or uncle or brother. And every year, late in May, a beautiful wreath of local flowers would appear at the foot of the monument, placed there by the ladies of the Rector Garden Club.
We boys, restless on the periphery of the crowd, would half listen to the prayers and patriotic boilerplate, waiting for the moment when the honor guard fired its three-volley salute, followed by the bugler’s mournful ‘Taps.’
In nearby Ligonier, every May 30, there would be a small parade led by a veterans’ color guard and the high school band. I would watch as World War I veterans and, sometimes, a halting veteran of the Spanish-American War, would march down Main Street in their old uniforms with the younger men from World War II. The faces of those marching by were familiar to me — storekeepers, plumbers, teachers, bank tellers — the men of the town. I found it hard to imagine that they had been at war in places I only knew from history books and movies and old magazines: Vimy Ridge, Anzio, the Ardennes, Tarawa, Iwo Jima, the Coral Sea, the North Atlantic.
In those days, folks would follow the parade down Market Street from the square and out across Loyalhanna Creek to the Ligonier Valley Cemetery on the hill overlooking the town. In addition to the color guard from the American Legion or the Veterans of Foreign Wars, there would sometimes be a company of the local National Guard, their shoulders emblazoned with the bright red “bucket o’ blood” patch of Pennsylvania’s 28th Division.
There would be a brief ceremony on the hillside among the marshaled grave stones. Band members would stand sweating in their high-collared wool uniforms. The seniors would always remember this parade as their last with the school band. We boys, restless on the periphery of the crowd, would half listen to the prayers and patriotic boilerplate, waiting for the moment when the honor guard fired its three-volley salute, followed by the bugler’s mournful “Taps.”
With our boyish sense of what was important we thrilled to the loud crack of the rifles and the faint smell of smoke and stared at those shiny weapons in white-gloved hands. As the bugle notes echoed, we grasped only faintly, if at all, the significance of so many little American flags fluttering beside so many graves in a valley whose population only numbered a few thousand.
I noticed that the crowds for the Memorial Day observance at the town square began to grow larger and the ceremonies more solemn and meaningful.
Sometime, in the decades after high school and college, while I was away in Philadelphia and Washington as a journalist, something began to change. In 1971, with Public Law 90-363, the Uniform Holiday Bill, Congress decreed that “Memorial Day” would henceforth be not May 30 but the last Monday of May, thus insuring a three-day weekend for federal workers. More and more, it seemed, this day was just one more holiday, one of the “bookends” (with Labor Day) of the summer. It marked the opening of swimming pools and amusement parks. It promised picnics and water-skiing at the lake. It meant free hotdogs on the flag-bedecked lots at automobile dealers, and “super sales” at shopping malls for those who were not busy driving to the ocean or the mountains, or ensconced before the tube to watch baseball or the Indianapolis 500.
Back in my hometown, I learned, the parade to the cemetery had been discontinued. There was a four-lane bypass now between the edge of town and the graveyard. It was felt to be too far a march for some of the older veterans and it was mainly the older ones who showed up. The crowds had thinned and, sometimes, as the color guard and the high school band gathered at the big flag pole on the town square, they numbered more than the spectators.
I have to admit I found myself looking at Memorial Day as just a good chance to get away from Washington for a long weekend. I never attended any memorial ceremonies. I just enjoyed my days off, careless, like many Americans, of the blood-bought security that permitted our freedom to be careless. But I woke up a bit and felt an embarrassed sadness when, in 2000, Congress felt compelled to pass a “National Moment of Remembrance Act” and charter a “White House Commission on the National Moment of Remembrance” to abjure Americans to “give something back to their country” by at least pausing for a minute of silence at 3 p.m. on Memorial Day to remember our war dead.
As the bugle notes echoed, we grasped only faintly, if at all, the significance of so many little American flags fluttering beside so many graves in a valley whose population only numbered a few thousand.
Within a year, however, events overshadowed federal entreaties. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the war which has ensued brought Americans a more immediate perspective on the sacrifices made and yet to be made by our armed forces. Shortly after those terrible events I retired and moved back to my hometown. I was reminded once again of the impact of battlefield deaths in a small space where it seemed everybody knows everybody. And I noticed that the crowds for the Memorial Day observance at the town square began to grow larger and the ceremonies more solemn and meaningful.
Our little town has a very small police force, so this Memorial Day, as usual, we firefighters from Ligonier Volunteer Hose Co. No. 1 will provide traffic control for the parade. I’ll probably be at my post in the intersection of Main and Fairfield Streets, directing traffic away from the town square as the veterans march and the crowd gathers around the flag pole.
We’ll take up our stations about 20 minutes before parade time. We’ll wave to those making their way to the town square — older guys in their VFW or Legion caps, Vietnam or Gulf War vets in berets and camouflage jackets, white-haired ladies from the veterans auxiliaries, young couples pushing strollers with kids eager to see the parade, and here and there a young marine or soldier home on leave. There will be numerous canes and a few wheelchairs and old medals on lapels. There will be tearful embraces and pats on the back as old buddies from a fast-withering fraternity greet each other.
Our radios will crackle with the order to close down Main and Market, and the parade will begin. A lot of the traffic we wave onto the detour streets will be people just passing through town — on their way to a picnic or heading back home after a weekend at the lake. Some will be annoyed at the inconvenience or just curious. They’ll ask if there has been an accident. I’ll tell them that it’s just our annual Memorial Day service. Oh, yeah. They nod. They had forgotten.
There will be tearful embraces and pats on the back as old buddies from a fast-withering fraternity greet each other.
As I stand waving the traffic off to the right, I’ll be close enough to hear the speeches and prayers over the P.A. system on the band stand. The themes are well rehearsed but somehow never worn out. There will be broken words and choked back tears as comrades are recalled. There will be a few maudlin moments, sure, and some of the old boilerplate from long ago. But all in all there is something very real, very personal, and close to the heart in the atmosphere of Memorial Day in Ligonier that always takes it beyond the perfunctory and beyond mere ceremony.
When the salute has been fired and “Taps” played and it’s all over, we always leave with a deeper gratitude for our freedom, with a clean pride in a country that has spilled so much of its blood for others, and with a heartfelt awe of those ordinary men and women who have risen at every moment of crisis and have laid down their lives to defend and preserve this beacon, this exceptional wonderment of human history, the United States of America.
Ralph Kinney Bennett writes the Automobility column for THE AMERICAN.
Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.
Toward a deeper gratitude for our freedom, with a clean pride in a country that has spilled so much of its blood for others.
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