As most anyone who knows me could tell you, I’m kind of a sentimental goober. But even by my standards, Memorial Day this year was kind of an embarrassment.
My father is 96, going on 97. He's been a member of the American Legion for 77 years. I guess it's just math – he enlisted in the Army when he was 17, joined the American Legion as soon as he got back from Germany, and has managed to avoid mishaps and bad luck for all the decades since. Nevertheless, it feels like a big deal to me.
We weren't sure he wanted to attend the Memorial Day ceremonies this year, because getting out and about is a lot of bother for him. But when asked, he said, “I think that would be kind of nice.” So, we found his uniform and other paraphernalia where my sister had carefully packed it away and gave the staff of the facility where he lives a heads-up. The next morning we showed up at 9:00 to find him ready to go.
When I was a kid, the American Legion would form up at one end of Main Street, march to the town square, run the American Flag up to half mast, and then march to the school for the program. At some point throughout the years, they caught a bus from the flagpole to the school, and now there's no marching at all. We parked in the back of the school to walk my father in through the ground level entrance and found him a chair near the front row.
A much-traveled friend of mine once told me, “Nobody does Memorial Days like small towns.” I can't judge for myself, because small town celebrations are all I know. One of the features is reading the names of the deceased veterans, starting with the Civil War and working up to the people who died in just the past year. I know almost all the names now, and I'm familiar with all family names. There's one that comes up every year that I don't recognize and when I asked my dad about it, he told me the family farmed not far from us. They had one son; he went to war and never came home and that was that. At the climax of WWII, Eric Severeid gave a famous broadcast in which he talked about what a mistake it is to speak of the millions of war dead. Instead, it's important to think of all the individuals, the families with one empty chair at the dining room table. Every year I think of that family I never met, who probably had plans for when there were strong young arms to help with the farming and what that would make possible. And that all went away - just one tiny blip in a world immersed in completely the same but completely different agonies.
Another feature of our Memorial Day program is recognizing how long some veterans have been members of the Legion. In terms of longevity, my father has been the winner for a while, and when his was the last name read, someone stood and started to applaud. She was joined by others and soon the whole gym was on their feet. I know it was an honor for all those who've made it this far, but it felt like it was just for my father and watching his profile from a few rows back, I saw the grim little smile which indicated he was tickled beyond all measure.
When the program moved to the cemetery, he didn't get out of the car but sat and listened to a young woman playing “Taps.” Afterward, a number of people came up to the car, the men shaking his hand, the women touching his shoulder and smiling into his eyes.
It made me think of the great John Prine song, “Hello.” The chorus goes,
“Old trees just grew stronger,
old rivers grow wilder every day,
but old people they just grow lonesome,
waiting for someone to say, hello in there, hello.”
When you're in your tenth decade and your spouse and all the friends of your youth are dead, lonesome must be kind of a default condition. Seeing a very small community doing what it could to assuage the loneliness of one old man on a special day was a lot.
Almost more than this sentimental goober could handle.
Copyright 2023 Brent Olson