Today is parade day in our small town. It's an unusual parade, wholly unlike the big fanfares of the more familiar parades of the country (Macy's, Mardi Gras, St. Patrick's Day) with their floats and giant balloon figures and flying dirigibles and confetti-throwing crowds. Our parade is home-grown and no one would travel very far to see it, much less to film it. Of this I am certain. Still, several days before the holiday weekend, the town puts up American flags along Main Street and every front yard along the parade route sports little flags on wooden poles. We're in a good place for flying flags, given how the wind in Central Pennsylvania seems to ceaselessly blow and bluster. And how those little flags love the wind, snapping and fluttering like bright little red-white-and-blue beauties up and down the town's streets.
At the town's center last week, a new flag was unfolded ceremoniously and sent up the tall metal pole in celebration of the big event while local citizens and a few white-haired veterans stood and stared skyward, starting in earnest this weekend's remembrance of those who served this country once, both its living and its dead veterans. Though it seems strange to think of it this way, especially after so many years have passed, those "veterans" include me and two of my sons and also my daughter, all of whom served in the Armed Forces at one time. My time came during the Viet Nam War, though I did not go to war myself. My sons' and daughter's time was more recent, sending them to places far-off as Korea and Bosnia, to Iraq and Afghanistan.
I couldn't bring myself to attend the town parade last Memorial Day because my middle son – an Army medic – was still in Afghanistan, and I was still deep in the throes of a mother's terror over whether or not he would make it home intact. There are some things a mother should not be asked to do: going to a memorial celebration while a son is still on the battlefront is one of them. This year, however, my son is out of the battle zones and he did come home intact to his family. So I believe I will bear up being roadside when the Colors march down the street today. That is what I tell myself anyway.
There are a lot of veterans in our little town and in the outlying townships: Main Street sports the newly-renovated house of the local Palmyra VFW and, at the other end of Campbelltown Road (the street on which we live), there is a small, squat concrete block building where the members of Campbelltown's American Legion meets and hosts crab dinners and cookouts and, on occasion, pancake breakfasts for the community. Out in back, there is a large, shaded covered picnic area where the barbeque pits smoke all weekend and send out all manner of delicious aromas into the streets: an invitation which begs, like the sign out front, to Come on by and join us for some good eats. Free to all.
Every time a local young man or woman dies in the fighting anywhere in the world, that old flag drops down to half-mast, lowered by another one who has been there – and by "there," I mean "in uniform while the country is at war." The elderly veteran who is assigned to lower the flag, lowers it slowly, releasing that rope slowly, hand over hand. And when he is done with his duty, when Old Glory hangs soulfully at half-mast, he lowers his head and stands in silence for a moment too. I have seen him make this gesture of respect more times than I like to admit – for those who served, for the one who has died, one who is more to these old soldiers than just that catch-all phrase "those who serve" because these who served and died are personal to the men who gather here: their people, their neighbors and neighbors' children, the children who waved at them each cold morning as they drove by the school bus stop on their way to jobs in town, the boys and girls who rode their bicycles recklessly against traffic, the fishing-pole-toting, mischief-making little fellows who grew up and put on uniforms and went off to fight in somebody else's war.
Last week, I noticed a new sign in front of the old building, a sign that is making its way to the front lawns of other homes and small shops in our town: For Sale. Even I know you can buy and sell a building, even an ugly one like this, but what happens to the heart of it, to those who have gathered there and made something meaningful for themselves and others? What of their rituals and those of us who have come to care for them?
Because I am a newcomer to this area, the old Campbelltown American Legion building has become something of a landmark for me, sitting on its corner, tacky-looking even in a fresh coat of paint and aluminum siding, with its little well-tended beds of pansies and marigolds out front, like some old throwback to the 50s, sporting its portable billboard out front announcing the week's events – one of the few signs in town, I might add, on which not a single word is ever misspelled or wrongly-punctuated. The for sale sign shocks me. The Campbelltown American Legion is something that was, long before I arrived here and something I believed would be here long after I am gone. It always astonishes me how many ways I can be wrong and about how much.
Our Memorial Day Parade closes down the two major thoroughfares and byways so everyone can safely line the streets with folding chairs and baby strollers, bringing along water bottles and waving small American flags on wooden sticks, bringing along their children who, by now, know to bring bags along for the candies that will be thrown from antique cars and fire engines. They bring along their dogs on leashes – and their toddlers are leashed or bungeed too when the necessity arises, and that necessity indeed does arrive: we have some wild little children here in Palmyra. By 9 a.m. this morning, in 84-degree weather and 80% humidity, the blockades are in place and the local police are out in force to make sure there will be no moving vehicles along the parade route except for the ones actually in the parade.
Ian and I tag along with our oldest son and his wife and their two little girls, knowing that we will get to see our new hometown do what it does best: make do with what it has. This town manages to get by with enthusiasm, with a little elbow-grease, with very little real style, and with a whole lot of heart and grace. And on Memorial Day, that means everyone who can make it turns out to stand, sit, or squat on concrete curbs along the tree-lined parade route as two police cars start to cruise down Maple Avenue, red and blue lights flashing like the business end of a good ticket-writing day. The freshly-washed cars are followed by members of the local National Guard in their battle-dress fatigues and shined boots, marking time, standing tall, stern-faced, carrying the Colors. Everybody, even the lame and halt, stands up when they march by with the flags: the American flag, the state flag of Pennsylvania, and some other flag which I think might have been the second flag that also flies at the Palmyra VFW. I am, of course, wrong about not being "done in" by the uniformed color guard and the flags. But since everyone is looking at the parade and no one is looking at me, my secrets are still my secrets.
Behind the color guard and flags are three middle-age vets carrying a long horizontal pole on which are fixed the red and gold Marines' flag, a hand-lettered sign that reads Semper Fi, and a sobering reminder: the black POW-MIA flag. Missing in Action. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Flanders Fields and all its poppies between the crosses, "row on row." That is what staggers me about flags: how they summon up again the ones who are no longer summonable and place them squarely at the center of memory.
When the formalities of the flags are done, the antique automobiles and convertible cars drive through. On each of the vehicles' side doors is taped a piece of white poster-board on which is roughly hand-lettered (no one in this town probably ever got a "A" in penmanship) the identity of the local dignitary riding in the car: the mayor, the town clerk, a few politicians, and two young people from the local high school who are its "speakers," whatever that means. They each smile at the crowd and give us all the infamous parade "wave," including one bearded, long-haired man in glasses who places his elbow in his hand and exaggerates a "beauty-pageant" wave for our amusement. We laugh and wave wildly back at him, enjoying the little joke. We take our laughs where we can get them in this small town.
After the antique automobiles, an open-bed truck cruises by with a karaoke machine and a man holding a microphone. He is doing his rendition of "Where Were You When The World Stopped Turning?" He has a good voice, that man, and he sings on-key, which must be difficult to do from the back of a moving truck on a hot morning. Whitney, who is barely two years old now, hears the singing and looks up from her seat on the curb and she bestows on him her biggest, toothiest grin. In turn, he half-bows to her, from the waist. Singers are special to her: her daddy sings her off to bed at night, his version of "One Tin Soldier" – the same song I sang to him when he was a little boy a long time ago.
Then come the pack dogs - the beagles, and pit bulls, and furry mutts on leashes from the local Pets N Paws shop. This is a big hit with the little kids too, as are the two brown horses with beautiful cowgirls and fancy saddles on their backs, horses whose rumps have been painted with the stars and stripes. But, for the littlest ones, the real show-stopper – every time – is when someone throws a handful of candy at them from a parade car, or when some teenaged walker hands them small plastic footballs or fortune cookies, or when the fire engines come alongside them and blast their loud fire horns. The little kids squeal with delight and run into the street to retrieve as many lollipops or hard candies as they can manage to carry back before the next car or engine comes along.
Children also like the marching band, especially the drum corps which is even noisier than they are. Big noise and hard candy. That is what toddlers and small children are all about. That is what they celebrate today.
Finally, the big trucks of the city – dump trucks, landfill trucks, contractors' trucks, the street-sweeping trucks, all freshly washed and waxed - finish out the parade. The children wave with their lollipops in hand and the drivers blow their big horns. How children openly love the big trucks and their drivers. And then, just like that, the excitement is over; the parade is done.
Everyone packs up lawn chairs and water bottles and sippy cups and candy bags and starts the long walk, or drive, back into the rather ordinary, small-town day that is promising, already, to be a real scorcher. Some will have picnics or backyard barbeques; some will cool off in the water rides at Hershey Park. Some will stay all day on their front porches, fanning themselves and drinking lemonade or sweet iced tea, talking about the weather and the heat and the crops and the old wars and who they knew once.
As I help the girls gather up their discarded candy wrappers, I hear my son's voice behind me: Thank you, sir, for your service to our country. I turn in time to see him shaking the hand of an elderly man. The man must have arrived when the parade was at its loudest. He'd been quiet. He'd spoken to no one and no one else stood with him. I certainly hadn't heard him or seen him come up behind us. But here he is, stoop-shouldered, weathered, wearing his Sunday best clothes and shoes and, on his head, a deep burgundy VFW hat on which is lettered in fine gold stitching: World War II Veteran.
He'd come to see this parade, his parade, a parade where he'd been an onlooker, not standing at the center of the glory, such as it was, not celebrated, not marching among the big engines and the drums and marching band and singing and spangled flags waving. Not waving and being waved at, not having the little children smile at him. It strikes me that this is how it often is with those who serve this country: they do what they do without parades and flags; they do it sometimes without being seen or heralded or acknowledged for what they endure; they do it because they believe it is their duty to do what they do, and they do it alone and far from the parades; they do it all from the sidelines, and far from the day's headlines.
Today, though, someone sees him. Today someone turns from the pressure of the packing-up, turns from the after-parade frenzy to get out of the heat, and trying to beat the traffic out of there. Today someone shakes his hand and thanks him and means it.
photo courtesy of Scott & Jenn Osborne