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Memorial Day

Knowing I have at least a few non-US readers, I’ll take a moment to set the stage, since everyone in the world is not necessarily familiar with US national holidays.

In the USA, the last Monday in May is Memorial Day, which serves a number of cultural purposes. Its original function is to be a day of remembrance for people who died during military service; culturally however, for most Americans, it also marks the true beginning of summer. It’s a three-day weekend for a large number of workplaces, a national holiday for which federal offices, banks, and so forth are all closed, and a traditional away-for-the-weekend time as well.

So, Memorial Day weekend typically features lots of traffic, many services closed, loads of people off work, no school, and lots of coooking out, barbeques, and the like (and retail places capitalizing by having sales). Many people enjoy the long weekend and participate in now-traditional Memorial Day activities like the back yard party, but don’t particularly do anything in observation of the military dead. Indeed, that’s usually us, but this year was different.

Yesterday was a very very long day, starting at 4:45 AM, hitting the road at 5:30, and making it to our destination a little before 9. A few years ago, Chad acquired a 1942 Willys Overland MB and started working on a bit of a restoration project. Not so much a turn-it-into-a-museum-piece kind of restoration project though; instead, a project intended to put it back into a working semblance of original form so it could be used for trips out for ice cream, afternoon summer jaunts, and that sort of thing. So not a project to put an old great wheel in a museum next to a mannequin in costume, but a project to make that old great wheel spin like it was meant to in the first place. Here’s how Jeepy looked when he first joined our family almost three years ago:

…and what he looked like on the trailer getting ready to go the night before last:

Chad is quick to point out that Jeepy isn’t done, and then go into a list of what’s not done. Jeepy is a WIP, but one that has been operable the entire time; it’s interesting to see the difference that makes. Whereas a yarn dork’s WIP really does reach a state of completion, a point where you simply could not do more with it, and the work really is done, a mechanic’s WIP… when you call it done, IF you call it done, is sort of a nebulous personal judgment call.

So, where were we taking Jeepy yesterday, and what does this have to do with Memorial Day? Well, Chad and his father are both members of the same American Legion post as Chad’s grandfather. The American Legion, a community service organization made up of veterans of war-time military service, does lots of different things, and my grandfather-in-law’s post sponsors and organizes the Memorial Day parade in his small Ohio town every year.

If you live in the USA, and you have no family involved with the military, or you are less than, say, 50 years old, or you don’t live in a smaller town, chances are you have driven past signs like these a jillion times, and never really thought about them; never thought much about parades, ox roasts, fish frys, pancake breakfasts, fundraisers, and so on which are put on by these folks all over the country. There are only 3 million people in the Legion, a pittance when compared to the entire American populace; and increasingly, they’re aging.

In my grandfather-in-law’s small Midwestern town, the Legion post is a focus of community and social activity for a sizable group of folks who are veterans or families of veterans. Most of the veterans are older, but of course they’ve got children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, many of them living nearby. To be a Legionnaire, you have to have been in the military (any branch) during time of war, wherever you served, whatever you did, whoever you are. So, spouses and children aren’t members, but can join one of several auxiliaries such as the women’s auxiliary or junior auxiliary, or can join in their own right if they are also veterans of wartime service. There’s no automatic membership or assumption of responsibility or anything like that. The Legion is, socially, sort of like a much larger, better-organized, and actually funded textile guild, which comes with more frequent social events and a members’ bar. Plus uniforms, and the magazine is monthly, flashier, and higher-circulation.

Chad and his father were invited to join by Bob, Chad’s maternal grandfather. Bob is so gregarious he makes me look shy and antisocial. He’s also rather mechanically inclined, and has put me through my paces explaining the technology of spinning wheels on more than one occasion. Yesterday, he said to me, “You didn’t bring a spinning wheel? You should come back up for the ox roast and bring a wheel and give everyone a demonstration and everything! People would love it! Nobody’s seen that done anymore!” He introduced me to all sorts of people, all of whom he’d told about me and my spinning of yarn and so forth.

Anyway, as you can see from the sign, this particular Legion post puts on the Memorial Day parade. It’s also the owner of one of a very small number of Gatling Guns preserved and not in a museum (it’s been rendered non-firing so it’s not technically a piece of armament anymore).

The Gatling gun comes out for parades, and normally lives on display in the Legion hall, where it’s preserved as an artifact but well-beloved by everyone associated with it — immediately upon our arrival, Edward made friends with the 8-to-12-year-old boy crowd, who took great pleasure in showing him how the crank operates the barrels and what you’d do if you were in charge of this historical weapon a century ago. I had never seen one of these; it’s absolutely fascinating from a mechanical perspective as well as historical, as it predates the era of true interchangeable parts and serious mass production. And it’s huge.

It fits through these double doors, though, and onto the hay trailer with minor modifications which the Legion has acquired in order to be able to parade the Gatling gun around. In past years, the Legion’s veterans have ridden on the trailer with the Gatling as it has been towed by a large tractor for the parade; however, this year, it was decided that another aging veteran would join the mix: Jeepy.

Bedecked with flags in his flagpole holders on the bumper, painted World War Two olive drab, stenciled with the Legion post number and his original hood number from when he rolled off the assembly line sixty-five years ago bound for Europe (we know he was maintained in Paris in 1944), smelling of fresh military canvas and hitched to a trailer full of armament that had been retired for over three decades when he was built, Jeepy definitely seemed to stir emotions for people.

Chad told me later that everybody had a Jeep story. I heard a few, but he heard them all. I talked to old men, great-grandfathers, who had spent pretty much their entire lives within a few counties of where we stood, save for the years they spent overseas in the 1940s — with Jeepy’s 300,000 or so Willys brethren and the other similar jeeps built by Ford; the only motor vehicles built in the United States between 1942 and 1946 were built for the war effort. Not so many remain, or remain running — but Jeepy does, his history pulled out from under a later repurposing as a a farm vehicle and so on.

Jeepy’s not a big, super-powerful megavehicle. He’s no tank, he’s no truck, he’s not a lot of things. His old, old 4-cylinder engine puts out less horsepower than a lot of modern lawnmowers. There’s nothing fancy about him. He doesn’t have newfangled or luxurious things like anti-lock brakes, power steering, turn signals, seat belts, or a roof. But he’s a workhorse of a scope I don’t think I even truly realized until I saw him loaded up with four generations of the same family — great-grandfather, grandfather, father, and son — towing a trailer full of Gatling gun and 21-gun-salute firing squad.

Now I’m going to shift focus just a little bit, and talk about the idea of remembrance.

When I was little in small-town New Hampshire, I remember one Memorial Day where the schoolchildren (52 kids in grades 1-8, 3 teachers) took small US flags out to the three cemeteries in town, and everyone had a handful of ’em and was directed to look for the tombstones with special flag holders in front of them, and then read the tombstone and figure out what war they’d have been in. For me, that was very thought-provoking, particularly in the graveyards of a town whose historic marker on the way in reads “First town incorporated in the name of Gen. George Washington, Dec 13 1776.” There in this tiny town of about 200 lay some of the United States’ oldest war casualties, and people who’d died in every subsequent conflict since; and many of them, people with last names in common with my classmates, who could say “That was my great-great-great-grampa’s brother, and he was in the Civil War,” or “That’s my grampa, he died in France when my mom was 2 so I never got to meet him and she doesn’t even remember him.” This tiny, insignificant little town, not even big enough to warrant showing up on most of the maps, where everyone knew everyone else and had for generations, remembered its losses thus; losses which could not be shrugged off or belittled or distanced given the small size of the population.

Plymouth, Ohio, with a population under 2000, turned out almost in its entirety for the Memorial Day events.

Everybody had family in the parade, it seemed.

The high school marching band played, fresh from a parade in the next town over and well warmed up.

The Poppy Queen, the most senior girl in the American Legion’s Junior Auxiliary, rode atop one gentleman’s beautifully-kept 1975 t-top Stingray.

To the cemetery where everyone had family, us included, that being where Chad’s grandmother was laid to rest last year.

Chad was put to work in the firing squad; his father and grandfather raised flags.

He says the American Legion’s firing squad is far more relaxing than when he did similar things in the USCG Honor Guard in the 1990s; he never used to get a chair.

Not in the shade, though.

Our son’s there with the other kids, listening to the speakers.

The fire department came too, having been in the parade with all their old engines even.

The Little League team had dressed for the occasion as well.

A wreath was laid for the dead of each war in which the USA has fought, by the Legion’s women’s auxiliary; and then my grandfather-in-law raised the flag from half-mast.

and a 21-gun-salute was issued as well.

Chad’s grandfather, at 80mumble, has far more energy than I do, and I’m fifty years younger.

Our son, with a ceremonial M-1 Garand rifle.

Jeepy had waited out the ceremonies in the shade, before everyone headed back to the Legion hall for lunch.

…after, of course, the Legion’s flag was raised fully, and Jeepy and the Gatling gun were parked.

“What did you think of our little parade?” asked a Legionnaire named Wally who I’d met that morning.

“Wonderful parade,” I told him, “and a very moving ceremony as well.”

“We do allright for a small community,” he said, almost bashfully.

“I can think of a lot of big communities don’t do nearly as much,” I replied, and it’s true. In Plymouth, Ohio, like in Washington, New Hampshire in my childhood, the memory of those who died during military service was a personal one for the town at large. I expect it’s true in most small towns, that roots and connections and remembrance run deeper than in larger cities; that where many generations of a family live close to each other, too, the personal prevails, and that’s what Memorial Day should be about: personal and community remembrance. Not politics or stumping or campaigns, not the liberal nor the conservative nor any stance in between, not agendas and appearances — only, “You are gone now, your life lost in service to community, state, nation, world… and we who haven’t made such a sacrifice remember.”

I’ve no war dead in my own family; veterans, people on duty, yes, but no one in living memory lost their lives in military service. I suspect that’s increasingly true for large numbers of us. But Memorial Day in small towns can show you the personal side, and I’m grateful for that. And apart from that, you can see community in action — and that too is something that’s dying out. I feel fortunate to have gotten to be a part of yesterday’s events. I’d probably even do it again.

But not today.

We did make it home safe and sound too. It didn’t rain on the parade. And during the entire trip, how much work do you think I did on projects? That’s right, not a single stitch.

Last night while trying to stay awake till normal bedtime, however, I did finally finish that Print o’ the Wave scarf. This afternoon, I’ll block it and soon there will be pictures.

“That’s a sign of the apocalypse right there, you finishing that thing,” Chad said. Surely not. It was only September when I started it.

17 thoughts on “Memorial Day

  1. Thank you.

    My grandfather was in WWI-he was a Kiwi, wounded (I’m not sure which battle).

    My father was in the 10th Mountain Division–he was wounded in training and missed D-Day–his division was massacred.

    My nephew is in Iraq now, 2d tour.

  2. My husband grew in such a town. His father, a vet of WWII, was a lifetime member of the American Legion. My father never joined, but we lived in Indianapolis, a totally different kind of town. He was stationed in Germany during the 50’s.

    One of my husband and I’s favorite types of geocaches will take us to cemetaries where many veterans are buried. The container hides are respectful of the graves and we pick up garbage and straighten flags. Taking our time to read headstones and remember those who fought for us.

    It’s also good to remember those of the Coast Guard and also the Merchant Marine. Both are so often forgotten when people think of military service.

  3. What a wonderful article!1 It deserves wider publication. I am the mother of pinklemontwist and a lurker for a little while. 🙂

  4. the transformation of the jeep is wonderful, but the old seats sure look more comfortable!
    what a great tradition.

    there are only a few times a year i actually miss being in DC..when the cherry blossoms are out, when i cant find a decent museum or library, and when i watch the wreath being laid over the TV. memorial day just isnt the same.
    we counted flags that lined the streets and went for a drive.

  5. Thank you for a wondeful commemoration of sorts.

    I didn’t realize you were from small town Ohio until today, but everything you wrote reminds me of my childhood in a similar Ohio small town.

  6. That was really interesting. Being a Canadian, I didn’t really know a whole lot about Memorial day, but now I see it’s a lot like our Rememberance day. Thanks for this very interesting piece!

  7. Wow, what is it going to be when I finially finish my “mindless” knitting wrap? Your post is awesome, such a tribute to those who have gone before us. Hopefully we will be those “who have gone before” someone. 🙂 It was a beautiful day for your activities.> This is an excellent tribute to them.

  8. We spent the holiday in Prescott, AZ (not as small as it once was, but a small town nonetheless) and attended a First Nations Memorial Day pow-wow. The unique confluence of Vets/bikers/Native Americans was an interesting one, and certainly gave me cause for reflection.
    Thanks for a great post.

  9. Thank you all! I’m not originally from Ohio, but I expect to be from Ohio now for the foreseeable future! Ohio is being wonderful to our family and we’re very happy here (though our town is larger than Great-Grampa Bob’s).

    Ellen, thank you for mentioning the USCG and Merchant Marines — services we don’t forget in our household, as Chad and his father both were in the Coast Guard. My own father didn’t pass the Vietnam-era physical due to his knees (which were really, really bad by then), and I never considered military service, running off with a blues band instead; one of my grandfathers was an Army captain, and the other an Army colonel, both during WWII; my great-grandfather was an Army captain in WWI, and that’s as far back as I know. Great-uncles galore all served during WWII, and my dad, aunt, and sister were all born on different army bases. I’ve got a second cousin presently in the Air Force (likely for life, flying a U2 at present), another who served in the army in the early 90s in Gulf Classic (as it were)… but all survived their service (or continue to). My family’s veterans have all perished to old age, and I count us all very fortunate.

  10. That was a beautifully written and evocative piece. Thank you.

  11. As an Active Duty army wife, thank you for the moving post. It’s a bit of living history and it was wonderful.

  12. Thank you that was beautiful. Thank for explaining memorial day as I am not in the States. It is important to honour those who gave so much for the rest of us no matter what country we are in. You and your family are doing just that in such a special way, thanks for sharing with us.

  13. This was a great post, thanks for taking the time.

  14. Thank you for an extremely thought-provoking article. Makes me ashamed to be British where this sort of thing is regarded as beyond the pale in these days.

    But I’m not surprised you didn’t have time for fibre stuff!

  15. Thanks for sharing your day with us and explaining Memorial Day, it’s what we do on Anzac Day, more or less. ‘They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
    Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
    At the going down of the sun and in the morning
    We will remember them.’

  16. Many thanks for such a detailed and insightful account of Memorial Day. My father grew up in small-town southern Idaho, and he and all of his older brothers (five or six?) served in the Army during a time of war. Two of his brothers died in WWII, and he served in Korea. Dad always calls Memorial Day “Decoration Day,” and speaks of the tradition of coming out to the cemetary to decorate the graves and honor the fallen.

    See if you can’t interview those relatives about their experiences in the war. I’ve done some of those interviews as a volunteer in the Veteran’s History Project, and they are ALL fascinating.

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