This morning I crossed the street in front of my house like I do every year on Memorial Day. I live right across from the post office in my town. Itís a small town. We have no stop lights, only a few stop signs, and, well, most call it a one blinkóblink once driving through and you missed it.
To the East of the Post Office is a Coal Miner Memorial. The town, founded by and named after a mine owner, is a dying thing. The Memorial gives tribute not only to the miners but also to that way of life that no longer exists for the vast majority of people who live here. The house I live in, a company "row" house, once a bossís house, sits in its segmented patch of land and has the same basic set up as most other houses nearby. Like many of my neighbors, I am the fifth generation to live here, in this same house, as I type I can reach out and touch the space where my Grandmother passed away; she lay in her hospital bed while we gathered around her a little over ten years ago.
It is a town full of rich and vivid memories, stories, and history. On the West of the post office is another Memorial. This one is the United States Veteran of Foreign Wars Memorial. Every year, for as long as I can remember, the town has had services at the Memorial on this day. When I was small, we would decorate our bikes and ride in the parade. From the elementary school up the high hill to the Post Office we waved our flags and pedaled. Both sides of the street would be lined with people of all ages. Each holding a small flag and waving it back at us. Of course, we didnít really understand. I didnít understand why my father would put on the funny looking, smelly cloths and get a sad, yet strong look on his face as he too marched with other men who wore different, yet similar clothes and looks.
When a bit older, my cousins and I would march with the majorettes, twirling and presenting an honor at attention at the site. Fire trucks, ambulances, Military bands, high-school bands, and Vets from all around would march in the parades. Again the streets would be lined. Still a few years later in high school, we marched with ROTC; the parade would last an hour. The guns would present a dwindling gun salute, and I would cry as the bugler played Taps only to be answered by the muted call of the second bugle. I wasnít the only one with tears. We would stand at attention when the Colors were presented and people would cover their heart, men would remove their hats, and we would sing along to our Country's anthem; then voices would raise as we recited the pledge of allegiance, hand still over heart.
Over the years the parades got smaller and smaller. The town's branch of the V.F.W closed as many active participants died and no one took their place. Today, was a particularly sad Memorial Day for my family. My Uncle Ed, a Korean War Vet passed and was buried Tuesday. He never missed a Memorial Day. He led the parade for over fifty years. This year, there was no band, there were no majorettes, there were no fire trucks; there were no children on shiny bicycles. The decline of participation had been slow but steady over the years until one by one groups just ghosted away. But worse that the lack of participation was the apathy of the crowd. Hardy anyone sang the National Anthem; few covered their hearts...not one young person did. Yes, I could see everyone. There were few enough to see.
Have we stopped teaching the younger generations gratitude? Have we stopped teaching them to give thanks to those who do what we can not do? Have we stopped teaching them that respecting the country, and flag is a good thing. Not worshiping it, but respecting it in all its imperfection and problems, itís still our home. With all the problems that we have in the US, I wouldnít change living here for anywhere else. Families work to fix what is wrong together, not kick the one who is down.
Five of my young cousins are in the service. All of them have served in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Some, more than once, and others are going back again. I couldnít help but think of them while I stood there with my hand over my heart as I wonderedÖ ĎWhat will your parades be like? You disserve majorettes, fire trucks, military bands and muted bugles."
When Danny, a Vet of the first Iraq war and Uncle Edís son, gave the Eulogy of the fallen, he made one promise to the people of the town, "As long as I am alive," he said, "I will be at this Memorial on Memorial Day to give tribute to those who have served in the Armed Services of the United States of America." Me too Danny, me too.