When I was growing up, every Memorial Day I’d rise at the crack of 8 a.m. to the ringing of the doorbell by my grandpa Joe. Wearing his usual khakis and polo, he’d crack jokes about contracting diphtheria and wanting to see the funny papers. He would look and act his usual jovial self, except on this day, and only on this day, he’d have on his beige garrison cap — one of those old cloth army hats covered with patches of indeterminable insignia. I’ll always remember a certain sadness about him too, though he hid it well behind a smile and a twinkling eye. Something was amiss, but I, as wise as I was at 10 years old, couldn’t put my finger on it.
All I knew was that grandpa was a veteran. And on this morning we’d meander down to the town square (yes, my town has a town square), gather under the white stone war memorial arch, under an oak tree that must be 400 years old and still growing, waiting with the rest of the crowd — quite sizable for a holiday morning — for the ceremonies to begin.
Boy Scouts and Brownies would be dressed in full regalia, the fire and police departments, unoccupied as usual, turned out as well. The local chapter of the charitable Order of the Odd Fellows and the Elk Lodge membership bunched together in groups of four and five, talking about whatever it is that old men talk about. Moms and dads, kids free from school, and Grandpa Joe and I lingered on until a single trumpet silenced the din of neighborly conversation.
As if by magic, the crowd would quiet, and all eyes would turn to the dais under the arch where a lone veteran, surrounded by some of his aged fellow soldiers, would address the townspeople, reminding us all why this Monday mattered.
I’ll can’t recall any of the speeches — something about sacrifice and never forgetting. What I do remember is the striking up of the high school band, the hoisting of the American flag to half mast on the town’s central pole, and the crowd, like a herd of elephants, making its way up Oak Street (my street, I might add) towards the cemetery, about half a mile away.
The march was slow, as most of those walking were just shy of a hip replacement. We’d pass house after house, each with a flag fluttering in the breeze. My mom stood on our porch, having stayed home to watch my little brothers. Her dad, a sailor, saw action in the Pacific during World War II. He died when I was eight. I never thought of it until now, but my mom was probably thinking about him as we made our way up the hill. Thinking about the brave soldier in the sepia-toned picture on our mantle, shirtless, smoking a cigar and brandishing a semi-automatic, looking like a man who could do anything before breakfast, including save the free world.
Soon, we’d make it to the shady cemetery. Folded chairs lined up in neat rows would face a raised platform, where honored guests and the band, still playing, waited patiently for all to enter. Grandpa Joe and I never sat, but stood off to the side with a few others, some vets and some not, while old ladies and moms with squirming kids took their seats. More speeches followed, more songs with unsteady notes from the unseasoned high school musicians, and my grandpa, for a rare moment, was quiet.
Things ended when a dozen or so men picked up their rifles and fired a customary 21 shots into the sky, saluting the soldiers who laid in rest at this cemetery and cemeteries all over the country.
A long silence always followed — I can’t remember if it was a requested moment or not. Heads bowed, eyes closed in silent prayer, and only the rustle of leaves broke the reverent stillness. Some time later, quieter than we had entered, all would rise and find their way out of the hallowed ground, back into the world of the living and onto whatever they had planned for their day off.
Grandpa Joe and I stayed. Without saying a word, I’d follow him to the other side of the cemetery, weaving in and out of gravestones so as not to step on any. I don’t think I’d ever be able to find my way back to where we were headed, but I knew exactly where we were going.
Eventually we’d find ourselves in front of a simple marble slab. I’m ashamed I don’t remember my great-uncle’s name, but it’s etched for eternity in stone, just as it forever will be in my grandfather’s mind. My great- uncle, Joe’s older brother, was killed in World War II, a casualty of war and a fine Ohioan at that.
We never stayed at his grave long. Joe walked me home under the oaks and maples, smiling again, but still, the sadness would linger. I’d get home, eat pancakes and watch cartoons, forgetting until next year all that had transpired that morning.
By the time this is in print, Veteran’s Day will have come and gone, and most of us will have mentally moved on to the immediate stresses and joys of our lives. We’ll wait, until May and again next November, to really give the soldiers, dead and alive, still fighting and retired from active duty, the time of day they deserve.
Grandpa Joe is still alive and laughing, but I know his time is short. I’ve never thanked him for being the wonderful grandfather he is — or for enlisting in the army, flying to foreign soil and facing the greatest evil the world has ever known either. He’s part of that Greatest Generation that the history books always talk about, a generation that gets smaller every year.
We may not agree with the politics of our current battles. We may question the motives behind them and debate whether we should send more soldiers in or take more out. But we should never forget that the numbers we assign to troops represent men and women, boys and girls, sons and daughters and husbands and mothers, living and breathing and bleeding Americans who take up a cause greater than themselves and fight, bravely, for our country. They, like my Grandpa Joe, deserve our commemoration, gratitude and support every day for they are, perhaps, the greatest among us.