Memorial Day 1997. It is early as I climb on my motorcycle to begin the first of many trips during the day to local cemeteries. It is the first and last thing I do on Memorial Days. I visit the graves marked with small American flags. They are the veterans. I see that J. Barton Hershler and Don Daniel McQuate were in the Great War. Perl D. Johnson was in World War II, and Richard E. Fliger was in Korea. Thomas Van Meter was in Vietnam. W.R. Bishop’s headstone even gets more specific by stating that he was in the Service Company of the 774th Tank Battalion in World War II. He was a private.
I love these days. I love seeing the flags on selected plots. I read the names and silently salute the men and thank them. The flag is a symbol for the things for which they and I stand. We have something very deep in common. We are citizens of the exceptional nation, and I have a flag just like that at home. An old woman in Bulgaria gave it to me just after communism fell in her ravaged land. She said that once each year she would take that flag out to the local cemetery and place it on one of the unmarked graves of one of the American fliers shot down during World War II. She placed it on the grave, but just for a moment. She couldn’t possibly let anyone see her do it. But that moment was enough. She was paying homage to the American soldier. Just for the sake of honor and memory, she said. Otherwise she said she had been keeping it (hidden) for years. She said the flag was a standard for freedom.
I am reminded that my grandfather was imprisoned in 1949 because the newly established communist government of Hungary found an American flag in his house about the same size as those that mark these graves in Ashland. He got ten years at hard labor for having that flag. At his “trial” they asked him why he had it, was he a spy? He said it represented freedom better than any other symbol he could conceive of. And he told them he had a right to have it. He was sentenced but got an early release in 1956. When he got back home, weighing half of his old self looking like a concentration camp victim the first thing he asked about was that flag. Did we still have it? His son, my father, lied to him. The original flag was confiscated, but my father had gotten another one that he dug out of its hiding place. He told my grandfather it was the same one. My grandfather believed his son and hope returned.
My nine year old American son has a baseball game this morning. It is scheduled for 10 a.m. I am looking forward to it. The whole family goes. It turns out that the game is canceled because the heavy rains of the previous day left the field too muddy. So we all went to the parade. Children, dogs, ballet dancers, Scouts, bands and veterans. Flags everywhere. Remarkable sight, watching a nation writ small praise those who fought and died on its behalf. No military hardware, just weathered old men waving at the young. They are the ones who lived through their duty. But they don’t ascribe their longevity to their own courage, they consider themselves lucky. They say it is the ones who died in battle that had the demanding courage. The virtues they note and talk about always belong to those who didn’t live through a war. These were the ones who should have lived.
It is hard talking with soldiers who got to grow old. Being in their presence makes you feel as if you don’t know anything, as if you haven’t accomplished anything. And this is right. They have done their duty so you can go to baseball games, so you can look into your wife’s soft and friendly eyes, so you can enjoy the wind in your face while on a motorcycle in peaceful Ohio. Being with war tested veterans always makes you better. Life becomes sweeter because you are prodded into a recognition that there is human excellence, that there is room for virtue. You realize that there is a price for freedom and peace. Veterans are the best teachers.
The crowds at the parade are generally quiet and respectful. But when old veterans in wheelchairs are pushed along by young and vibrant men spontaneous applause breaks out. It’s picked up by all with enthusiasm as the men roll past. We give what little honor we can to those who deserve much more. These are the men who wouldn’t give all their “fame for a pot of ale and safety.” They met grim visaged war by standing up to their full height, full of valor. We honor their courage and their sacrifice. And we feel better and closer to one another for it. We become citizens for a moment. It feels good.
I take the family home. We are quiet. I am tempted to explain more fully to my children the meaning of such remembrance but I am afraid it would spoil the unspoken eloquence of the occasion. I drop them off at home and return to my motorcycle and our cemeteries. I notice many more who fought in World War I and II, and begin to take notice of the older more weathered markers, some hardly readable: Jackson McGuire, private, Grand Army of the Republic; Abram Eminger, corporal, Civil War; Careb Grice, 104th Ohio Volunteers, Infantry; John Enck, Company G, 17 Battalion, Pennsylvania Cavalry; Daniel Henney, Company C, 20th Ohio Volunteers, Infantry.
And I think of the others, those many who “gave their last full measure of devotion” at Shiloh, Chosin reservoir, Vicksburg, Leyte Gulf, Pea Ridge, Meuse-Argonne, Kennesaw Mountain, Normandy, Antietam, Iwo Jima, the Wilderness, the Battle of the Bulge, Cedar Creek, Anzio, Chicamagua, Remagen Bridge, Gettysburg, Bastogne.