Monday, May 30, 2005

decoration day

Typically the day would be very hot. We put on our scratchy wool band uniforms, the shiny bottoned jackets and neatly pressed trousers, the stiff chin strapped top hats, fluffy plumed and tilty, the spatted shoes and white gloves. Because I played the E flat contrabass clarinet, much too large to be carried and played for several miles, I became part of the percussion section on those days, cymbals or bells in hand.

The parade began in front of the now-empty high school, wound down Vernon Street, past the junior high and on down, down, into Oak Ridge Cemetary, through the old iron gates where the drum cadence changed to the mournful beat, beat, beat of a lone muffled snare.

We followed the Legionnaires, pot-bellied men in tight ribboned and medaled uniforms, whose waists supported flags perched on leather straps. Duke Stranz, the only man I knew personally who smoked a cigar, led the group, solemnly carrying Old Glory. This was their second treck to the cemetary that day; they had already been there as the sun came up to place small flags on the graves of veterans who had served in various wars, many of them their comrades in WW II.

In perfect step, we marched past the place where the indians had been buried, long-ago moved from their eternal resting place at the sight on Fort Hill to the grassy knoll near the railroad tracks, all silent now but a tribute to westward expansionism.

In harmonious step, we passed the first grave, that of a baby, the old headstone tilted in the May heat, the words still readable, "Here in the woods and all alone, my weeping parents laid me. The owls and the wolves howled all around but my grave securely hid me."

We stood at parade rest in front of the Civil War monument, our Yankee town's tribute to the Union Men who bravely fought against slavery. The graduating senior girl with the best voice sang The Battle Hymn of the Republic and a senior boy read the poem Flander's Field. We played America the Beautiful, The Washington Post March, and The Star Spangled Banner,our band director wiping his eyes from the tears and the sweat.

During the six years I was in junior high and high school, the Vietnam War was raging and many of the boys standing near me in band already had their draft cards. During my senior year, some of them had already been drafted and were heading out to boot camp soon after graduation that next week.

It was called Decoration Day back then, instead of Memorial Day, called so because everyone decorated the graves of their loved ones. It was an innocent time for me. I knew no one who died in a war and my grandfather, my mother's father, was the only family member I vaguely knew who was buried in Oak Ridge.

The small flags, twisting and swooping in that May heat, waved to us as we left the cememtary, the pulse of the drum again changing to the intense tempo of a marching band as we rounded the turn through the gates and headed back to the school building.

If I marched that route today, I would see many familiar names, many grave sites of those I have known and loved...the boy in study hall who died in Vietnam, my grandparents, my dad, his stone bearing the name of my mother, her date of death reading 20--. I would see the burial place of the boy who took me to the 8th-grade-freshman dance; he was killed when another classmate, in an LSD frenzy, shot him in the head. He is buried next to his little brother who was hit by a car on the highway in front of their home. I would walk past the indians, the tiny baby in the woods, my Uncle Paul, the Politio brothers who ran the fruit store, Wally, our neighbor who got drunk and drove his motorcycle into an embankment, the prom queen who died of leukemia.

Today we will drive to the cemetary, my mother will gingerly make her way out of the car, her 83 year old legs struggling to get to the grave stone. She will place live flowers on my dad's grave. And she will cry. We will both cry. We will read the back of my father's stone, their stone, that says "for he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust. As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more. But the mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, and his righteousness unto children’s children; To such as keep his covenant, and to those that remember his commandments to do them."

We will remember those who have gone before, those who died either to assure our freedoms or because we all live under the curse of the fall. We will decorate the graves of our loved ones, we will remember and honor that memory. Bands will play, students will march, boys in uniforms will think about carrying M-16's rather than trumpets. And life will go on.

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

...Lt. Col. John Macrae


At 7:42 PM, Blogger greenemama said...

very nice. and i didn't even go this year.


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