Best thoughts about Memorial Day seem captured in this essay from several years ago. The words become more meaningful year by year as our nation continues struggling with world-wide terrorism. So I dust off the old column. Touch up a few scratches. And recycle it.
Memorial Day… the beginning of summer for many. A moment of solemn remembrance for a special few. A splendid time for all of grassroots America to turn out for an old-fashioned parade down Main Street, while the bemused spirits of yesteryear inspect us from their haunts along our route. No parade more meaningful than the little parade in Hamburg; a procession with neither beginning nor end.
Opinions may differ among the ranks of school bands leading parades to local cemeteries all over the nation. Youthful marchers may consider old-fashioned ideas about Memorial Day as mere thatch around the grassroots of America. School is nearly over. Seniors soon graduating. Maybe they’d rather spend Memorial Day partying at the beach.
Truth is, Memorial Day – originally called Decoration Day — gains larger meaning for me each year. I stroll through the local cemetery, marveling how many headstones bear the names of folks I helped escort there. The dates engraved on the stones startle me. So quickly passes a decade, a quarter-century, now 53 years.
How bandmaster Rachel Palajac gets so much work out of the members of the Pinckney High School Marching Band on a holiday remains a mystery. They submit to two forced marches, thumping and tooting their way toward cemeteries in two different towns. I guess the grade book must still be open.
The Memorial Day parade in Hamburg breathes an air of mystery. It’s the parade without an official beginning. No one’s in charge. No one gives orders. It just happens. Like an encircling ring, that which has no beginning has no end. All the essential planning got done back in time immemorial. Everyone knows their part. It can hardly be improved upon, so no one tries.
Back in 1965, the now-sainted Deaconess Olive Robinson collared me to explain some facts about clergy life in a small town. So I joined forces with her on Memorial Day some fifty-two parades ago. We enjoyed cordial small talk on the way to the cemetery. Read some Scripture when we got there. Strolled back uptown together. Repeated the scenario the next year. And the next.
The parade has grown considerably larger since my first, which featured the high school band, some fire trucks, a marching scout troop, and Al Golden’s dump truck. Jim Bennett always stood in the doorway of the local dairy, handing out Eskimo Pies to everyone walking back from the cemetery; a welcome treat on a sunny day in May
After Olive passed away, it fell to me to pass along her instructions to her successors at old St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. Episcopalians intone so well that wonderful Memorial Day selection from the Book of Ecclesiasticus, “Let us now praise famous men…”
Olive herself is off on permanent assignment in the heavenly realms. She’s probably organizing another parade there. Such would be her perennial nature.
When the buses carrying the band arrive, the parade starts. That triggers the Memorial Day parade in Hamburg. It’s as good a signal as any.
For many years, I assumed Manly Bennett started the parade. A bit past 10 o’clock every Memorial Day, the Old Fire Chief would pull out his big pocket watch with a bulldozer engraved on the brass fob. He’d survey the crowd of folks milling around on the street between the church and the fire hall. He’d scowl at his watch and chew on the stem of his stone-cold pipe.
A minute later, a big yellow bus carrying the high school band came chugging around the corner. Another minute to get into marching formation. And the parade stepped off. That’s the way it always was. May it always be so.
Manly was a rural fire chief in the best sense of that tradition. He literally sacrificed a significant portion of his life to the betterment of the fire department he helped organize in 1946. When Manly passed away in 1986 – just two weeks shy of 40 years of service – he was still The Chief. And may he always be so.
I don’t regard the Hamburg Cemetery as a graveyard in any ordinary sense of the term. I see it more as spent lilacs in fading bloom. It’s a place where townsfolk tread fearlessly among impassive rows of granite markers on their way to the ceremony under the flagpole. A blast of band music rouses a herd of spirited horses in an adjacent pasture. The rattle of a ragged gunfire salute sends them prancing along the fence line. The twenty-four mournful notes of “Taps” bring a tear to an eye here and there.
It’s the place where Chief Manly lies near two of his brothers, Lee and Bill. They were joined there a few years ago by their mother, Alice, at the honorable age of 96, then a third brother, Glen, and now Chief’s wife, Blondie as well; all together in a cemetery so lovingly tended by a fourth brother, Dale, and his son Mark for years beyond numbering. That’s a grassroots continuity well worth a Memorial Day in its own right.
As summer creeps in from the cold, Memorial Day seems the appropriate occasion to stroll down to the cemetery to do honors for the folks who lie there for whatever reasons they were snatched away. You are welcome to attend, of course. Expect no fancy invitation. Just show up shortly before 10 a.m. If anyone questions you, just pretend your invitation got lost in the mail.
Memorial Day signals the death of May and the birth of June; a timeless promontory from which life’s traveler gazes upon a broad vista of the past, snatches a fresh glance at the present moment, and captures a shadowy glimpse of the future.
Eroding grave markers – some tilted, some broken – bespeak solemn counsel on the impermanence of all things in time. They urge us to grasp the moment. “Carpe diem,” wrote the poet Horace a few years before Christ was born; “Seize the day!”
Any thatch around your own grassroots ought not choke out so lovely a moment at the triumphal entrance of summer. Maybe a picnic at the state park after the parade wouldn’t be a bad idea after all.