Memorial Day weekend started out on a rather somber (but productive) note for us this year, actually. Plymouth County (where I grew up, just north of Sioux City a ways) still does the “Avenue of Flags” at the Courthouse every year. The local American Legion keeps one flag for every deceased veteran, you see. On Memorial Day they go put up all 1,060+ flags around the Courthouse.
This year the Legion made dogtags for each veteran’s flag with the veteran’s name embossed to replace the old, rather weathered plastic name tags on the flags. So, on Saturday, Dagmar and I tootled our way to LeMars to help put all the new dogtags on their strings and tie them up.
It was an interesting process, really… The people at one table measured out lengths of weather-proof string, trimmed them to size, “cauterized” the ends with a candle to prevent the strings from fraying, and tied a knot. Our table (the “hookers”) took the string in one hand and a dogtag in the other, poked a paperclip through the hole in the dogtag, hooked the string on the paperclip and threaded it back through. Then we’d put a nifty little knot to keep the tag in place. A lady at the next table counted all the finished dogtags and checked the number against her list to make sure all were accounted for. (“I’m missing one E, then I’m ready for all the F’s – who still has an E?”) The final table alphabetized all the tags.
I think we all had a moment, sometime during the afternoon, when it hit us that there are an awful lot of deceased veterans in the area… The town of LeMars has, give or take, about 8,000 people. We had well over 1,000 tags. It seemed that every time I’d take a minute to read the dogtag in my hand I’d be thinking, “hey, I went to school with his son,” or “I wonder if they’re related to so-and-so,” and, once, “this is my grandfather’s tag.” I also saw my cousin’s tag come through the line.
Some of our fellow American Legion Riders had recorded a poem written by a local veteran, remembering bits and pieces of their experiences in Vietnam, to be played at the ceremony at the Courthouse on Memorial day. We listened to that while we worked. The guy across from me, himself a Vietnam veteran, quietly wiped tears from his cheeks as he strung dogtag after dogtag on the strings. “I don’t remember the heat being so bad in Vietnam,” he said when the poem was over, referring to one of the stanzas, “but one time when we were on a bombing run just south of…” He told his war story in a cheerful voice, unconsciously clutching a veteran’s dogtag in his hand so hard his knuckles were white.
When we were done with the tags, we went to the room next door which happened to be a bar, complete with beer and everything. We sat and had a few tasty beverages, then we all went off on our various ways to start the weekend.
After leaving the Legion, Dagmar and I zipped ten miles west to the family farm. My aunt and uncle were there visiting, freshly returned from the Peace Corps where they’d spent two years in the Ukraine, so they had plenty of stories to tell. My cousin was there with her twin girls. My other aunt was there, all the way from Des Moines. My brother was there with his family (including our Beloved Goddaughter) and his brand-new car, a 2007 Grayish-Green Toyota Yaris. We parked our car, a brand-new 2007 Grayish-Green Toyota Yaris, right next to his. We all laughed and pointed. (Honestly, we did.)
We enjoyed the evening, playing with the nephew and nieces and the twins, eating hamburgers, and listening to stories of life in Ukraine. My aunt had brought a bunch of scarves along, so my mother and aunts took great delight in pretending to be old Russian babushka ladies.
Kind of funny – one aunt is a retired Master Sergeant who joined the Peace Corps, the other is a retired Colonel who joined a circus band. My mother is a belly-dancer. I can’t wait to find out what I’m going to be when I retire…
“Are you going to be in the parade?” I asked my nephew who’s in Cub Scouts now.
“I dunno,” he answered. “Why are we having a parade anyway?”
“Well, every year we have a parade and a ceremony on Memorial Day to help us remember all the soldiers.”
“I don’t know any soldiers,” he said, looking up at me through his glasses. “They’re all off fighting, aren’t they?”
“Well,” I said, “you probably know more soldiers than you think. Three people here at the farm today used to be soldiers. I was, sort of, for a little while, too.”
“So we have a parade to remember you guys?”
“No, not really. We have a parade mostly to remember the soldiers who died. Some died in a war, some died after they got back. Some volunteered but never had to go to war. We want to remember them, and think of how brave they all were.”
The nephew thought for a moment. Then, “Do you know any soldiers who died?”
“Well, on Memorial Day I often think of my grandpa. He fought in a war a long time ago and did some very difficult things. So I like to think of him. I think of other people, too.”
“Did your grandpa die in the war?”
“No, he died later, just of being old. He was a soldier for a long time after the war was over.”
A moment of silence. “When Dad takes me home I think I’m going to draw a picture of this,” said the boy.
We wandered around the corner. Dagmar was on the swing with the Beloved Goddaughter and one of the twins. She’s a good aunt, patient, kind, gentle, and genuinely happy. She makes my heart do funny tickly things.
Later that night, after the family festivities wound down, Dagmar and I stopped back at the Legion Club to see if any of our friends were there having a nightcap. Sure enough, there was a table full of friendly faces. I ordered a beer, Dagmar a Diet Coke, and we sat and chatted for a few minutes. Another couple joined us – new people in town. The shaven-headed young man (he seemed more like a boy to me) was covered in tattoos and sneered at us a lot. He proudly showed us his tattoo of a swastika. I thought about my grandfather, who was a POW in Germany during WWII, and my mother-in-law who grew up in refugee camps in Austria. We left shortly thereafter.
Sunday was not quite so productive. I was supposed to ride to a place in Nebraska called “Bob’s” for lunch with some friends, but it didn’t happen. Here’s an e-mail I wrote to my friends, explaining my absence.
“Hey everyone – sorry about missing out on the Bob’s run! I feel terrible about it.
“I awoke that Sunday morning, eager to take a quick ride through the hills, then head to Bob’s to meet everyone… Laying in bed I ran through the day in my mind, making sure I had the agenda right. I could picture myself gliding gently along the road to Ponca, the trees waving hello to me in the gentle breeze… I decided exactly what I was going to order when I got to Bob’s, and made up my mind I wasn’t gonna get any fries ’cause I was gonna mooch off Kioti when he wasn’t looking. It was gonna be a GOOD day! I stretched and yawned, pried the eyes open, one at a time, and began to face the world.
“Slightly foggy yet, my brain made it’s way through the morning routine of making coffee (instant with sugar, lukewarm so I can gulp it), checked my e-mail, scratched my vaguely flabby and increasingly hairy carcass, and made my way to the water closet to perform the daily ablutions that happen there. By the time the morning coffee kicked in I was happily brushing teeth, humming a merry song to myself. I couldn’t help but notice, though, that the merry song I was humming was keeping perfect tempo to the pounding in my head. At that point I realized I’d had a headache all morning… Kind of like standing up and realizing all of a sudden that not only do you have to pee NOW, but that you’ve had to pee for quite some time. That was how the headache was.
“I rummaged around in the mystery cabinet behind the mirror for some nice aspirin to take. (I call it the “mystery cabinet” simply because other than my toothbrush I really can’t identify any of the items therein – Mrs. Hippie seems to have made it her hobby to collect various exotic-looking bottles and keep them there.) Finding a bottle that looked pretty much like an aspirin bottle should look, I decided that maybe two might not be enough, and three might be better, seeing as how I really didn’t want to ride with a headache.
“At this point it should be stated that I’m not technically an idiot, I just bear a strong resemblance to one.
“Ten minutes after gulping the three aspirin I was sitting on the couch, pulling my left boot onto what I hoped was the correct foot. Seven hours later I woke up on the couch, one boot on, one boot off…
“I guess there really IS a difference between “Tylenol” and “Tylenol PM.” I slept until four that afternoon.
“The lessons I learned? Read the damned label. And that Tylenol PM really does work.”
The rest of the day was spent in in a mild daze in front of the computer, doing not much, really.
By 6:30 or 7 Monday morning I was on the bike on my way from Sioux City to LeMars to join the American Legion Riders (ALR) in the parade. I was kinda halfway hoping to make it to town in time to help put the flags up at the Courthouse, but I was pretty sure I was about two hours late.
I was right. The last flag was going up just as I pulled up to the curb. After all the Boy Scouts who had been putting the flags up left I took the opportunity to wander around the Courthouse lawn for a while. The wind was still for a change; all 1,031 flags hung quietly on their masts as if in deep thought. I found my uncle’s flag and thought about him for a while. Then I found my cousin’s flag and thought about him for a while too. Some voices brought me out of my reverie. My riding buddy Jerry, the First Sergeant over at the local Army National Guard unit, was quietly going over details of the ceremony with a handful of soldiers on the Courthouse steps. I decided it was time to head to the Legion – they’d served breakfast for all the people who helped put the flags up, I figured they’d probably need help by now getting things cleaned up and ready for the lunch they were planning to serve to volunteers later that day after the parade.
By the time I got to the Legion there were just a few bikes there already. I grabbed a cup of coffee and helped rearrange the tables and get enough chairs out for the luncheon. When that happy task was over, I peeked outside to see that about 25 more bikes were just pulling in, including my buddy whose pooch, Bob, rides with him.
We milled around outside for a few minutes, taking pictures of Bob-Dog ’cause he’s so cute, then got the five-minute warning that it’s time to get ready for the parade. I pulled my swell 3’x5′ American flag out of my saddlebag and mounted it to the back of my bike. “Hey, I’ve got a couple extra kids here if anyone needs one,” yelled our Chaplain. “Sure,” I said. “I’ll take one.” I nodded to the lad Chappy indicated and we headed for the bike. It seemed that about half of our group had kids on the back of our bikes. We’re big bad bikers, I tell ya.
Just as I was about to turn the key to start the bike, Dagmar wandered past me, camera in hand. “Lots of bikes here,” she said, kissing the very tip of my nose. “It should be a goot parade! Who’s the kid?”
“Good Morning, Snookums!” I said. “The kid belongs to the Chaplain. He had an extra. When did you get here?”
“Hi Chaplain’s kid. I got here just a few minutes ago,” she said in that cute Viennese accent of hers. “Vhere are you goink?”
“Just around the corner. We’re going to line up there for the parade. It should start in about fifteen minutes.”
“Okay,” she replied. “I’m going to go up to de Main Street und take pictures as you zoom by.”
Fifteen minutes later we were, yes indeed, headed down the parade route. I have to admit, it didn’t really seem like there were many people there to see us, but that’s okay – we’re not here for US, we’re here to remember the veterans.
The parade went through the downtown section of LeMars (about four blocks, maybe), then hung a left a couple blocks to the Courthouse. Not the biggest parade in the world, but again, it’s not about us. I was just happy that there weren’t any horses in front of us like there were a few weeks ago in the last parade…
Around the corner to the Courthouse… Ahhhh! So THAT’S where all the people are! Way cool. We parked our bikes, Chaplain gathered his kids, I found Dagmar, and we all wandered up the Courthouse lawn to hear the speaker.
It was an impressive ceremony, as usual. The Municipal Band played. I snuck up towards the front to get a peek. Yup! My aunt, the one who joined the circus band, was right there, tooting her horn. She must have made arrangements with the conductor, as she lives in Des Moines and could hardly have made any of the rehearsals…
After the band there were a few speeches. I found myself daydreaming a little, to be honest. When I was a boy, I always marched in the parade with the Boy Scouts and helped put the flags up. My grandfather always marched in the parade, too, with the American Legion. At least once he was chosen to represent all World War II veterans by carrying a wreath to the Courthouse steps. I remember watching him from the side – he wore a short-sleeved white shirt and his special Legion hat. He walked solemnly up the sidewalk past all the silent people, stopped in front of the steps, did a snappy right-face, placed the wreath on its stand, saluted, then went to sit with the other veterans – one from each war – at the front. Grandpa often carried the American flag in the parade, too, with the Legionnaires.
Kind of funny. When we’re kids, we’re in parades and carry flags because we’re told to by someone else. It never really occurred to me when I was a kid that people march in parades and carry flags, not because they’re told to and it’s expected of them, but rather because it’s an honor to do so. I’m proud that I own an American flag, and that I use it often.
The band started playing again, softly, waking me from my memories. A man was now standing on the Courthouse steps, microphone in hand. He started reading. Names. A list of names. A long list. He read the name of every deceased veteran from the town – all 1,031 of them. They do this every year, and every year the crowd is absolutely silent until the very last name is read.
Once the last name echoed away into the distance, the speaker started reading again. Slowly. More names. These are the new flags. Over thirty veterans passed away in LeMars this year. Each one had a flag dedicated – as the speaker read the veteran’s name, an honor guard escorted the veteran’s family, following behind their flag as it’s carried down the central sidewalk to it’s appointed spot and placed in it’s stand.
It’s hard not to cry when you see the families huddled around their loved one’s flag, hugging each other, sniffling, trying to look brave.
When the ceremony was over, I gathered my family together (both those I’m related to and those that are simply family somehow) and we headed to my cousin’s flag. Cousin Caleb had just gotten out of the Air Force and was starting to find a life-after-military when he died in a motorcycle accident just over five years ago. Last week I’d asked our Chaplain if he’d be willing to do a quick ceremony in memory of my cousin, then I found out the next day that my cousin’s parents were coming to LeMars. Serendipity? Yep.
So we gathered, bikers, veterans and family for a short memorial. It felt good.
If you’d like to see more photos of the Memorial Day ceremony, just CLICK HERE. The link will take you to a magical place where you can see all the photos, and even see them as a slideshow if you want. If you’d like to see more about my cousin Caleb, you can CLICK HERE. My aunt and uncle have also set up the CALEB Library Project, they collect and donate books to be sent to Africa. You can learn about it HERE.
(Hey, I just found out I can embed a Picasa album in my blog. Neat, huh? If you wiggle your cursor over the picture below, you should see some nifty little slideshow controls pop up. If you push the little “next” button, it’ll take you to the beginning of the album. Then you can push the little “play” button and see all the photos of the day. (The only reason you have to push those buttons is because the slideshow was merrily playing itself through whilst you were reading your way down this far. By the time you got here, the show was over. That’s why you gotta restart it…) The photos were taken by Barb Hansen, Dagmar, and a few by me.