Saturday, May 23, 2009
It is Memorial Day on Monday in the United States. It is a day to remember the dead fallen in war and service to their country. It started after our most bloody war, the Civil War, which took the lives of 600,000 on both sides of that conflict.
There was a time when the day fell on May 30 but with the recent age of chronic luxury, it became the last Monday in May to accommodate a three day weekend situation.
The American Republic has three hardcore secular holidays. Fourth of July is the birthday celebration. Thanksgiving is the hearth, harvest and family holiday. Memorial Day is in remembrance of those who fought and died in our wars. These holidays cover the basics, Birth – Life – Death, across our calendar.
My memory drifts back to Memorial Day in 1969 when I was part of a marching high school band and we marched over trolley tracks and cobblestones in Northeast Philadelphia. It was quite a physical workout for myself carrying my fiberglass Sousaphone in my first parade as a marcher. I think I got a few blisters on my feet that day.
We marched and we stopped many times. At those stops, veterans in their veteran’s regalia gave brief speeches at Veterans’ Halls and at small neighborhood bronze plaques commemorating those who served God and Country and of course those who gave the ultimate sacrifice. I heard Taps played on a trumpet many times. We played the national anthem many times. We played a then popular song “This is My Country” as we marched and marched and marched.
We did get fed well at several pit stops in brief breaks after local ceremonies.
The Vietnam War was being waged in the background of all this local patriotism. I do not remember any joyful beating of the drums for that war. In my recollection, that day had truly been dedicated to past conflicts. The unpopularity of the Vietnam War was evident by its absence in all the speeches I heard that day.
Two people things stick out in my mind of that Memorial Day of forty years ago.
One was that of an ancient man in coke bottle thick eyeglasses and wearing what looked like a Boy Scout’s uniform. Examining his badges and medals more closely revealed that this probably ninety plus year-old was a veteran of the Spanish American War in 1898 when America took the opportunity to liberate Cuba and the Philippines from Spain, their then colonial master. The old man was a sight.
The other people moment had to do with a former freshman year English teacher approaching me from the crowd and saying hello. I had heard that the Reverend Mister had left the teaching order at my Catholic high school. I did not know why. Next to him in the crowd, I had seen him with his hand around the waist of a young lady. The sight of the former seminarian out of uniform, no cassock and no starched collar, and the sexual connotation of his touching a woman were jolts of reality that pressed hard on my parochial mind. Well anyway, he came over to say hello and the band was off to the next stop on the itinerary
It is strange how memories have a way of coming back to remind you of something. Future life experience sometimes comes back to memories to connect all the dots in a bigger picture of things formed later in one’s life. One thing that I must say here is how subtle politics, patriotism and religion go hand in hand sometimes in this country.
On a local level, your band goes from a Catholic to a Protestant to a Jewish War Veterans’ post. Even though there is no official religion of the United States, religion most definitely exists side by side with everyday realities. To quote the late Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Thomas "Tip" O’Neill - “All politics is local.”
I don’t think the VFW posts are that segregated anymore by religion. We are talking above about Philly in another era.
Sometimes a feel good thought of the past, of beautiful weather, barbecues, local fellowship is a thought that should be left alone and not dissected.
This day we remember those who have fought and died under the Stars and Stripes – for good intentions or for naught - then and now.