As far back as I can remember, my family celebrated Memorial Day as fervently as Christmas, Easter, or any of our birthdays. My parents, uncle, and aunts were all members of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars Post, so every year they helped organize and inevitably marched in the parade down the main street in town (in this case Glendale and Ridgewood in the borough of Queens, New York City).
Each year for as long as I can remember, my father dressed in an Uncle Sam costume and marched along, waving to the crowds. My Uncle Frank wore uniform pants, shirt, and hat when he walked, and my mother served in various capacities over the years, including playing Miss Liberty, being part of the Color Guard, or walking along in her uniform as President of the Ladies Auxiliary.
The years coalesce now, but my earliest memories involve drums, balloons, and flags. I was first wheeled to the parade in my carriage, then spent a few on my grandfather Fred’s shoulders, and then standing on the pavement holding his hand. Fred was a World War I veteran (he served on a submarine chaser), and I recall in those long ago days actually meeting vets from the Spanish-American War and one very old gentleman from the Civil War (who that year sat in a vintage car holding a fancy carved cane).
Invariably, I recall it being one of the hottest days of the year. When I was five or six I remember standing along the parade route holding Pop’s hand and putting my flag down in the gutter next to my feet. Somehow the strong sunshine had actually melted the tar and the wooden stick became embedded there. Pop yanked it out for me, but that incident reminds me of how hot those days used to be.
All the schools in the area sent a marching band, and each one was received with thunderous applause from the large crowds on both sides of Myrtle Avenue. Also the local civic organizations, police and fire departments, and teams would come along, also getting their share of ovations; however, I remember the loudest and most sustained clapping and shouting were for the soldiers (both active and retired) who came along with their buttons and medals shining in the sun. Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines were equally represented and embraced by the flag waving parade goers.
Afterwards, we would all go back to the VFW hall on Catalpa Avenue, where my parents and other members had set up one fine assortment of hotdogs, hamburgers, salads, and refreshments. Until this day I don’t think I have ever had a better hotdog than there. On the tables were pitchers of beer, soda, and water to quench the thirsts of the weary and overheated marchers who happily had performed their duty for the day.
I recall my father taking off his Uncle Sam costume and being soaked in sweat (with his chin always raw at the spot where the itchy beard had been pasted for hours). He brought a new set of clothes to change into for the festivities, and he, Uncle Frank, and the rest of our family members and friends enjoyed that cold beer, while we kids would eat and then run around and play.
As I got older and was able to partake of the beer too, I got to sit and talk to the men and women and hear their stories. Memorial Day always seemed a festive time, but when they got on their third or fourth round of suds, the men would start talking about those left behind. Some would get a little misty, remembering their youths and those buddies lost in battle who never got a chance to come home, have families, and grow older.
Sadly as I think of it now, all of those people from my memories are gone (including my parents and uncle). They told their stories, but never with any boasting or any political posturing. The thing that really impressed me was that these brave men and women served their nation regardless of who was President or in Congress. Many had been drafted, but there were others who volunteered for service. They never complained about who sent them overseas or why they were there (and I spoke to a broad range of WWI, WWII, Korean, and Vietnam vets over the years).
Their patriotism was inextricably linked to love of country, and to the last one I spoke to over the years, none of them were hawks who wanted conflict or sought to be in the thick of combat. They loathed war, but did love their country, so it was something they did out of a sense of duty and obligation. They remembered the terrible aspects of the war, but some of them also recalled the close bonds they had made with their fellow soldiers and nurses.
In the end this bond lasted for the rest of their lives and even beyond death. This is an eternal fraternity and sorority of brothers and sisters who served together, now immortal in the hearts and minds of a nation that recognizes them each year, and the individual families and friends who mourn their loss.
So now I will go to the local parade again this year with my children. We will watch the fire trucks, the marching bands, and the dedicated people from the armed forces who wave to the crowds and smile, despite the horrors of things they may have experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan. They follow in the footsteps of all those who came before, honoring their memories as the drums beat and flags wave. Thus Memorial Day does continue to be the holiday of bittersweet memories, for now and forevermore.
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