It was a noble idea. Listening to the voice of my grandma still ringing in me fifty years after the fact, I picked up my grandkids and took them along to the town's Memorial Day "doings" to experience, for the first time, small-town patriotism.
It all starts with a ten-minute Main Street parade that is, really, somewhat closer to a religious processionnal than a bona fide parade, given its abbreviated length. First, a handful of VFW and American Legion men march up, in uniform, toting the flag. Their numbers decrease every year, but lately a horse-drawn wagon carries a those who can no longer make the long walk to the cemetery.
Then the high school marching band (which was more than a bit out of sync and tune, I thought, but okay), then the Boy Scouts, then a couple dozen kids on cray-paper decorated bikes, then a dozen locals on beautiful horses that, unfortunately, hadn't been potty-trained and unceremoniously did their business for all the world to see--and left it there on Main Street.
That's it. As they say, that's the whole parade. Only death itself changes such ordinary small-town events like this one. Trust me--I've been going for decades.
Ten minutes, max, and we're off to the cemetery, where time-honored rituals continue. Some local vet delivers a warning to America ("if we doesn't shape up, God will no longer bless us"), then a men's quartet offers something patriotic. The honor roll of those local boys who never returned is read as separate flags are dropped to half-mast, the honor guard shoots blanks over the heads of the crowd, and two high school kids take a shot at "Taps." Class dismissed.
It's a 45-minute event, and, if the sun is out, the heat can get wilting. No matter. I was going to please my dead grandma this year and take my grandkids because I thought it might be good for them to be a part of a community's ritual patriotism and to begin to understand something about what freedom costs. Besides, I can blubber as well as anyone to a good solid rendition of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."
So we found a spot on the grass, quite close up to the action, and the kids sat still the whole time, asking only once if we could go home. I thought their behavior was exemplary; they seemed attentive. When it was over, they even wanted to stop in the cemetery and look around through the graves. Grandpa was much pleased.
So later, they came over with their parents, and I asked my daughter if they'd said anything at all about the whole morning's events, their very first experience with Memorial Day ritual--all that talk of freedom and war and bombing runs, young men "killed in action," dozens of American flags waving all around.
My daughter shrugged her shoulders. "The big deal was those horses pooping on Main Street," she said.
Then again, there's always next year, Grandma.