A Memorial Day Revisited
By David Frederick | May 23, 2020
Memorial Day was established as a day of solemn remembrance to honor all those who have died serving in the American armed forces.
In 1953, Memorial Day was celebrated on Saturday, May 30. That was also the day that I, as a 10-year-old child, began a process of learning some things about We the People not taught in schools. Things I observed that day, although not at the time fully understood, were nevertheless remembered.
The place was Grand Ledge, Michigan, a small farming community located 11 miles west of Lansing. It was a good place to grow up. A strong sense of community existed there, as it likely did in many rural areas. Its manner of observing Memorial Day was probably not unique. However, it is doubtful if anything very much like it occurs today.
A core part of the day’s events was a parade. To a 10-year-old observer, it seemed that almost everyone in the community was either in the parade or standing along its route.
Farm kids riding horses led the way with flags unfurled. They were followed by the high school’s marching band, uniformed in blue and gold. A local National Guard artillery unit also marched. Their uniforms were complimented by polished helmets, and rifles on their shoulders.
Members of the Future Farmers of America, wearing their bright blue jackets, participated, as did Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and 4-H members. Following this was the bicycle brigade, composed of dozens of preteen kids. Their bikes were decorated with red, white, and blue crepe paper.
The parade lined up in front of the public library on Jefferson Street. That was an appropriate place to start. A memorial had been placed there, which listed the names of all the local men who had served in World War II. Those who had been killed in action were further acknowledged by having a gold star alongside their name.
The parade proceeded only a few blocks before it came to a stop on the bridge crossing the Grand River. Words heard over a scratchy public address system were difficult to understand. An honor guard of American Legionnaires stood at attention overlooking the river. In response to shouted orders they simultaneously raised, aimed, and fired rifles as a salute to the fallen. A prayer was said as a wreath honoring fallen sailors and marines was dropped into the river. Tears could be seen on the faces of some adults — and it wasn’t just the ladies. I had never seen anything like that and didn’t know what to make of it.
At that point several Air National Guard single-engine DeHavilland Beaver aircraft came roaring down the course of the river in single file and made a low pass over the bridge. Their speed seemed breathtaking, and the roar of their radial engines made the ground feel as though it was shaking. Four passes from four different directions were made before the aircrafts turned away and disappeared. Their presence was to honor fallen airmen.
Prior to the parade resuming its march toward Oakwood Cemetery, the band performed “Anchors Aweigh” and the “Marine’s Hymn.” Sadness created a resounding silence. Apart from a powerful voice command to forward march, and the beat of drums marking the cadence, there was only silence.
Today I occasionally remind myself that it was a different time, and the adults were of a somewhat different breed. Perhaps those who struggled through the Great Depression and carried the nation through World War II really were our Greatest Generation.
Many of those who had lined the parade route followed it to the cemetery. It was less than a mile away. There were probably a few hundred people there. The band played several pieces — including both the Army and the National anthems — a choir of women sang patriotic songs, pastors prayed, and speeches were made. Most of the speeches seemed lengthy and were not well understood by preteen bicyclists. But one speech was understood by even that group: the reading of the names of the men who would never come home. It was accompanied by the tolling of a bell reminding all of that terrible finality. Tears for the brave became more prevalent.
The 1953 Memorial Day remembrance concluded as several howitzers were simultaneously fired time and again in honor of the fallen, the blasts’ ghostly echoes faintly returning from the river valley.
For the bicycle brigade, it was a good day. There was a measure of excitement and fun. But by day’s end, there was also the beginnings of an understanding of shared grief, as well as the recognition that a horrible price is often paid by those protecting our country. That some children began to acquire a small measure of that understanding made May 30, 1953, a day to be remembered by them.
The era described in this letter is long past. It is unlikely to be repeated. What citizens such as you and I can do to honor the fallen, and maintain a memory of their collective sacrifice, is to double and triple down on protecting the democratic republic created by our forefathers and protected by the brave, both living and dead.
Today our country is threatened, and while it will continue to exist in one form or another, its Constitution and foundation on democracy may not. In the absence of a functional government of, by, and for the people, the duty falls to us to protect our nation from all enemies both foreign and domestic. Today the greater threat almost certainly comes from within.
David Frederick, a centrist-based Independent, regards extremist political partisanship as a dangerous threat to the well-being and security of middle-class Americans. He further believes reestablishing coordinated grassroots truth-to-power messaging is a prerequisite for diminishing that threat. firstname.lastname@example.org