One Tiny Town’s Memorial Day
By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson
You’d think that the last place you’d find a pacifist on Memorial Day is at her town’s holiday observance, but you’d be wrong. I’ve been going for most of the last 25 years.
In the early years I had to swallow my bile and keep my mouth shut. These days, it feels right to be there. I think a large segment of America has grown up and faced the reality of war. I don’t, however, think it would take an awful lot to tip the country back in the other direction.
The ritual here doesn’t change much from year to year. It’s held in the church on the hill, and it’s about the only thing that happens in that building all year. If five members are left alive, it’s a lot. But this spring the building, a traditional white New England church with the town clock in its steeple, got a fresh coat of paint. It was like the center of town got its face washed after years of looking like a ragamuffin.
The building is a treasure if for no other reason than that it houses what is probably the second-oldest tracker organ in New England, perhaps in the country. What makes a tracker organ different from most of today’s pipe organs is that the action is entirely mechanical, not electrical or electrically assisted. The tone is wonderful. To a theist, it must sound like the voice of god.
When I started attending the Memorial Day service, it was pretty much about the glories of American wars and how great it is to die in service to your country. The speakers back then, all very much alive and intact, seemed to be saying that the best thing a young man could do was to go off and get blown to smithereens in a war, any war, whether in Korea or Vietnam or Grenada.
I went at first because I was on the selectboard (the gender-neutral term used in these parts in place of the Board of Selectmen because not all board members are men any more) and the three of us marched in the parade behind the veterans. Then I went (and still go) to honor my husband, a veteran of World War II, who went (and still goes) to honor his maternal grandfather, a private soldier in the Civil War.
I skipped a few observances in the early years of our devastation of Iraq, preferring to stand in silent vigil with the local Women in Black group. When I started going again to the Memorial Day service, I found the tenor of the speeches matched the changes I’d been seeing where we vigiled — the words, like the behavior of people driving by the vigil, reflecting a certain sadness at what the US had become in the world.
Each year we pledge allegiance to the flag, sing the voice-cracking “Star Spangled Banner” (I want our anthem to be “My Country Tis of Thee” and always will); hear a pupil from the elementary school read General Logan’s Memorial Day Order, which is clearly incomprehensible to the poor child assigned the task and, hence, to the rest of us; and beam as most of the children in the elementary school sing “This Land is Your Land,” and “America.” We listen to a child read the poem “In Flanders Fields” by the Canadian soldier and physician John McRae (when I was a child we memorized the poem, and each year our teacher went through it line by line and made sure we understood what it was saying. This was during World War II.)
We used to sing a couple of hymns, but the woman who led the hymns now only starts us off on the national anthem. She and I are about the same age, and the voice of a woman in her 70s, no matter how lovely it used to be (mine wasn’t ever, but hers was) is no longer a thing of beauty.
We get prayed on a couple of times — invocation and benediction — and hear The Speech. This year’s speaker told about his brother, who died in World War II. The ball field is named for him, and there’s a monument there in his memory. The account was brief and touching and I was glad to be there to hear it.
When my husband and I started attending these events, the World War I veterans sat in the front row and those from World War II and the rest of them sat behind. Now the front row is reserved for World War II veterans. Each year I remember the ceremony in my elementary school more than 60 years ago when we got to hear from a couple of Civil War veterans. I remember how they looked to me, and can imagine how we look to the children today.
The church service lasts about a half hour; then we form a parade to the ball field, where a member of the dead soldier’s family places a wreath at the monument. We used to have a marching band; this year we had a young man with a trap drum and two young women playinig Yankee Doodle on their flutes. We used to have a three-gun salute; this year a recently retired Army colonel (how young colonels look today!) dressed, for some reason, in Revolutionary War garb, fired a musket. Once. That was enough for me. Someone plays “Taps.”
The parade regroups for a march (and, in the case of a few of the veterans, a ride) up the hill to the town cemetery, where the graves of everyone who ever served in the military are decorated with little American flags. That’s where Marina (pictured above) did a credible job of reciting the Gettysburg Address — another piece every elementary school child in my day had to memorize. Marina knew to say “of the people, by the people, for the people,” instead of putting the accent on “of, by, and for,” as most children these days are either taught or allowed to do. (Pictured behind Marina is Pastor Dan. who served as this year’s chaplain and did the praying for us.) Once again, the musket fired a round, or a ball, or whatever it is that muskets fire.
Down the hill again, this time past the Town Hall, we reassembled at our brand new veterans’ monument, inscribed with the name of everyone born in the town who ever served in the military. One more musket shot, and we wound up in the town hall dining room, where the Women’s Guild (every woman in town is automatically a member) had a table full of sweets, coffee, and lemonade.
I didn’t count, but I’d guess between 10% and 15% of our town’s 750 people turned out for the event. Memorial Day is one of the few times during the year that we get to see each other, so it’s friendly occasion. We have no store, no post office, no community center at which we can bump into each other. This, we know, is how towns fall apart, but we lack the resources to do anything about it.
Posted on May 26th, 2009 by Miryam Ehrlich Williamson
Filed under: Rural Life