Memorial Day is a holiday. But many of us tend to forget why. Not Rolland Smith, though. The former anchorman at WCBS-TV in New York City still remembers how Memorial Day was celebrated when we were kids. And tries to not to forget that, even today.
So many of us were able to enjoy the Memorial Day weekend. Typically it is a bonus day of delight, barbecues, picnics along with family & friend gatherings, and dodging the rain drops, as least in my area.
In my youth though, the celebration of Memorial Day was different. It was a day of remembrance, honor, and appreciation of those who died in service to our nation. We had our gatherings too, but they were always after a parade, to honor them.
I lived in a small village and parades were loosely organized. School bands marched playing Souza’s patriotic tunes and the military service anthems. Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and Cub Scouts marched in uneven lines as the local fife and drum corps headed up the volunteer firemen and the police contingent. The Ladies Auxiliary from the VFW posts marched too. They always seemed to strut with a grace that the vets couldn’t muster.
My friends and I rode our bikes festooned with red, white, and blue crinkled crepe paper woven in the wheel spokes. We inserted a piece of cardboard attached to the bike frame into the spokes too, so that it rattled like a motor as the wheel turned. We kids would ride between the marching groups. Little American flags taped to our handlebars fluttered in the peddled breezes.
The guests of honor were always the veterans. Some wore their old uniforms and proudly displayed battle and campaign ribbons. Tight-fitting uniforms never kept the bulges of time from being noticeable. Their step, however, was proud as they kept their eyes ahead and heads held high.
The veteran contingents marched together by the war in which they served. In my small town in central New York, the largest groups at that time were the vets from World War Two; that war had ended only a few years earlier. Then came the doughboys from World War One. They were older and fewer. The oldest veterans, two from the Spanish-American War, rode in a convertible at the head of the parade. The next year they were gone, and a Medal of Honor recipient rode at the head of the parade.
The parade ended at a local monument honoring all those from the area who had died in war. Their names were embossed in bas-relief bronze on a plaque bolted to chiseled granite.
Memorial Day celebrations in those days engendered a reverence for the fallen. Even as youngsters we felt a connection to those who had passed. We all knew someone whose father didn’t come home, and we all stood straight and still for Taps.
Little did we know then that Korea, Quemoy and Matsu, Vietnam, Iraq One, Grenada and Iraq Two and Afghanistan and so many other wars in so many other places would follow, and that there would be new war veterans marching to honor the fallen.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if in some future Memorial Day, we would have no new names to remember?