Belle of Liberty

Letting Freedom Ring

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Memorial Day Memories

A day late and a dollar short is the saying. That’s today’s blog. The dead can’t speak so we must speak for them and as commander-in-chief, that was Obama’s duty, at which he failed miserably this Memorial Day.

Apparently, God didn’t think too much of Obama’s Memorial Day plans. Upon arriving at Lincoln’s cemetery, God made his presence known and our liar-in-chief was forced to decamp after a few, brief remarks.

Good for God.

Meanwhile, the nation was forced to endure the second-best for the wreath-laying at Arlington National Cemetery. We had beautiful weather here in my neighborhood. Hot, but beautiful. After the first parade, a war veteran invited me to sit with him in the shade of the beverage tent.

I was a little embarrassed. He was 87 – the same age as my mother. I hardly regarded myself as being in such a bad shape that I couldn’t endure a little heat and humidity. Though I was warm, it was actually my back that was bothering me.

Finally, finding an excuse (a friend for whom I was waiting returned), I excused myself. On reflection, I wish I had stayed to talk to him a little longer about his service in the war, an opportunity I generally have not failed to take advantage of.

Happily, not all veterans are reluctant to speak of their war experiences. This fellow was certainly talkative and undoubtedly Providence placed me there to hear his story. I failed in my duty as a writer. Well, maybe next year. He says he’s planning to live to 90.

These veterans are now being forced to settle for second-best at their wreath-laying ceremonies. Although our band occupied the same position in the parade it has for decades, the organizers decided to hold the wreath-laying ceremony earlier in the line-up.

That meant no Taps, as far as we knew. Rumor had it they were going to use a deejay recording, although our band has several trumpet players capable of playing it. It’s not all that easy playing it on a trumpet or cornet, as it was originally written for bugle.

Still, our trumpet players were ready, willing, and able. They consider it an honor to play Taps. If the organizers had selected a young high school musician with more stamina, they would have understood. But to be replaced by a recording was a sour note for them.

I was disappointed that I missed the ceremony. Usually, we’re right there, rifle volleys and all. The cemetery where my father and my grandparents are buried is right down the street and I consider the ceremony an opportunity for a personal tribute to my father and grandfather.

Even though Grandpa didn’t serve, he was an instructor at a military academy and I make it a point to put a flag on his grave every Memorial Day. His instruction meant the difference between life and death for many seamen during World War II. Alas, this year, I was late and wasn’t able to get there in time to do it. I didn’t even have time to pick up the flowers. Again, I failed in my duty, as a daughter and granddaughter (I think they’d have understood, though).

I might pay a visit on the Fourth of July – Grandpa’s birthday – to make up for the lapse. Grandma gets flowers, just for having put up with him and his tempers, and for having been a musician.

Memorial Day is supposed to be a solemn observance. Yet here we were marching down the middle of a street with crowds cheering on both sides. They had spilled out into the streets so that they were practically looking over our shoulders as we played.

They’d been waiting expectantly for the roll-off that would announce the next march. The whistle came and the snare drummers did their thing. A woman on the other side of the street gave a great whoo-hoo! in perfect time to the roll-off cadence – followed by “Now they’re going to play!” (evidently she was a Mom person) just before the final cymbal crash and the opening strains of the march.

Often I find my three selves competing with one another on parade – the writer, noticing things like that, the photographer, seeing a perfect shot of a tiny tot with an American flag marching along in time to our beat, and the musician, trying to do the job I’m out there to do.

This year, I even offered to take pictures rather than play, but the sound of the bells carries a full block farther than the rest of the instruments. I had to do my duty. In this duty, I did not fail, though not feeling well, I didn’t perform at full capacity, at least not in the first parade.

Likewise, the picture of cheering crowds, blue-sky days like these last two we had, and gravesites bearing American flags, seem to distract from one another. How can you feel solemn when a marching band comes along the street playing “You’re A Grand Old Flag”? (Or when you’re in that marching band, playing the bells, of all things, the least solemn of all the instruments in the musical spectrum).

I can’t help thinking, however, that it’s somehow fitting that the spectators, if cheerful rather than solemn, were at least cheering for the right, patriotic reasons. My father the reporter would have considered that jingoism.

He fought willingly in World War II. He recognized that Hitler had to be defeated. But he hated the war itself and saw no reason to glorify its hellish aspects, even while he refused to describe them. War is no picnic and silence, he would claim, is the best tribute to those who died.

I don’t know about that. Silence obscures truth. If war was hell, I’d rather know it and not be spared. It’s difficult, and unwise, to describe the agonies of war to very young children, indeed, and it’s mainly for them that we crash cymbals and wave flags and play Taps.

We can instill the love of our country in our young children now with music and songs and parades and teach them later about the sacrifice many made to ensure that the American flag flies freely and to not take that freedom for granted.

There is no music without the silence of the grave. But that silence must not mute the sounds of freedom, either, nor the joy we feel for it. On Memorial Day, both tributes are correct and proper. Dad, the soldier, Grandpa, the military instructor, and Grandma, the musician, are all buried near one another along the parade route.

On parade, my job is to play, even when the sun glares off the metal bars of the glock so that I can barely see what I’m doing. I must confess here that I almost wasn’t going to go because I wasn’t feeling well. Something told me though, that I had to do this parade, that it was my duty, and that if I didn’t do it, I’d regret it.

Once I got out onto the street, my sense of duty kicked in. Just as the soldiers whom I was helping to commemorate didn’t particularly feel like going out to die but went anyway, I had a job to do. Our woodwind ranks are rather thin, and when it comes to the solos in the trios, the band needs me to be there to help deliver them.

Being rather nervous of solos, and just nervous in general, I’m awfully glad for our lead saxophone player who helps me carry that melody along. We generally get applause for having the nerve to play alone like that, without the trumpets (who take that time to give their lips a break). The crowds enjoy it and displaying a sense of dynamics usually helps us win trophies.

That same sense of dynamics is what gives the Memorial Day ceremonies their gravity. Without the blaring of trumpets, we’d have no appreciation for the relative quiet of the graveside memorial tributes. We wouldn’t even be able to get the attention of spectators.

That is one reason so many Memorial Day services fail and fall by the wayside. A moment or period of silence, like that trio in the march, there must be, but it must be balanced with some sense of victory, or their sacrifice is for nothing. It’s a matter of common sense.

Celebration without sorrow is a disgrace. Sorrow without celebration will result in a permanent silence of forgotten graves and discarded medals. Obama and his ilk would gladly see Memorial Day silenced permanently and the surest way to do that is to remove the music.

Achieving that balance on Memorial Day – between ceremony and celebration, service and swimming, solemnity and sales, banners and barbecues, is never an easy task. The living parade with the medals they believe belong to the dead comrades they left behind.

Our band has been around so long and won so many trophies that we no longer even have the space to store them. A young, high school age musician on our band reproved us for not displaying enough discipline on the street.

“This is the way you stand at attention,” our little musician-soldier gravely informed one of our trumpet players, demonstrating the appropriate posture, “and this is the way you have to stand at ease, which isn’t the same as parade rest.” A long-time music teacher, he just laughed at her.

She chided us for not knowing what we were doing. Our discipline is sufficient, actually. During a judged parade, our drum major is pretty strict with the musicians and being adults, we do know when to stand at attention and be respectful. Particularly on Memorial Day. A pity we weren’t near enough this year to do so.

Still, it’s good to have the young around to remind us of propriety.

Our band doesn’t win so many trophies as we once did. Long ago, I told this girl, we melted most of them down and sold the brass, saving only the plaques indicating when we won the awards. Still, she scorned me for my lack of pride and decorum.

Little does she know that I thought the way she did, once upon a time. But then I began talking to veterans at Memorial Day parades and in my job as a writer. I began to look at winning awards differently.

I’ve spoken to veterans who struggled on the sands of Iwo Jima and navigated the snake-infested waters of Vietnam. I’ve spoken to seamen who lost limbs on battleships. One witnessed the sinking of the U.S.S. Arizona, watching as the entire ship was raised right up out of the water.

My father fought in Europe for four years. “Heroes in Dungarees” talks about the very seaman my grandfather taught. It talks about how quickly a stricken merchant ship filled with iron ore could sink and what happened to the engineers trapped below decks.

My godfather was ashamed of the disability that prevented him from serving during World War II when so many other boys wound up dying for their country. Some good friends of ours fought in the Dutch Underground, putting their lives at risk to help the Allies in Europe.

Many a veteran has died, his family only discovering Purple Hearts and other medals long after the funeral. They consider it a dishonor to display medals for bravery, when so many others did not return from the battlefield.

Veterans are proud to have served their country. But they consider it incongruous to wear medals on the day we honor those service people who gave the ultimate sacrifice. They regard it as their duty as they pass in review to receive the applause for their fallen comrades.

On Memorial Day, all the honor belongs to them. The rest is all bells, trumpet flourishes, and cymbal crashes from a band that has stood at attention for judges, for trophies, and for heroes, and after 126 years, knows the difference.

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