Saturday, May 31, 2008

In Memory of...

Introductory rambling: So much to write about these days, what with the rules committee hearing going on in DC (moot in any case), the war, the Democratic Convention in Augusta, the Celtics, international disasters--it's all been on my mind to comment, disparage or celebrate. Instead, I'm going to write about Memorial Day.

I've been thinking about this since I went to Portland's parade on Monday, and links sent by Petrie have kept it in the front of my mind. Last night I had pizza and beer with my city councilor and we chatted about it as well. Time to write.

Portland's Memorial Day Parade was pathetic. Embarrassing, actually, on several levels. It was thinly attended. The delegations were small. The community was not represented. The American Legion and VFW were predictably bitter. I was pissed.

I shot off a text message to the three city councilors who I know, and they all had the same general response. It is the VFW and the American Legion who organize the parade, and they only talk to each other. I don't mind beefing with those guys--you have to involve the community. Here are my thoughts, in no particular order:

In Memory of Memorial Day

If you don't tell it like it was, it can never be as it ought to be.
-- Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth
Reverend Shuttlesworth was speaking about slavery when he said that. I feel the quote is appropriate, nevertheless. Like slavery, our American wars -- and war wounded and war dead -- are self-inflicted strokes. Bear with me while I explain what I mean.

No matter how obvious the need, ultimately we take it upon ourselves to war. The Revolution was a choice -- we decided that bloodshed was necessary. We severed ourselves from England to become the cutting for a new flower.
Washington and Lafayette
Even the most obvious wars -- World War I and II, the war with Afghanistan -- reflect a policy choice that sends Americans to kill and die. The rightness of a choice is debatable; that it was a choice is not.
Joshua Chamberlain

It is also appropriate to tie the remembrance of slavery to Memorial Day because we have, in part, freedmen to thank for it.

During the Civil War, a racetrack near Charleston was converted into a military prison for captured Union soldiers. At least 257 of those men died from exposure and disease and were buried in a mass grave. In April of 1865, two dozen or so black men dug up the grave and properly reinterred the bodies of those dead Union men in the racetrack's infield. (Who cares to imagine that gruesome task?) A fence was built around the new cemetery, whitewashed, with an archway entrance inscribed, "To the Martyrs of the Racecourse." Then, on May 1st, Something remarkable occurred:
At 9 am on May 1, the procession stepped off led by three thousand black schoolchildren carrying arm loads of roses and singing "John Brown's Body." The children were followed by several hundred black women with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses. Then came black men marching in cadence, followed by contingents of Union infantry and other black and white citizens. As many as possible gathering in the cemetery enclosure; a childrens' choir sang "We'll Rally around the Flag," the "Star-Spangled Banner," and several spirituals before several black ministers read from scripture. No record survives of which biblical passages rung out in the warm spring air, but the spirit of Leviticus 25 was surely present at those burial rites: "for it is the jubilee; it shall be holy unto you ... in the year of this jubilee he shall return every man unto his own possession."

Following the solemn dedication the crowd dispersed into the infield and did what many of us do on Memorial Day: they enjoyed picnics, listened to speeches, and watched soldiers drill. Among the full brigade of Union infantry participating was the famous 54th Massachusetts and the 34th and 104th U.S. Colored Troops, who performed a special double-columned march around the gravesite. The war was over, and Decoration Day had been founded by African Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration.
(Of course, the "official" Memorial Day wasn't established until 1868, when General John Logan, Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, signed General Order No.11.)

Finally, the act of warring ploughs deep furrows in the mind. This is not to say that years on the battlefield are one-to-one in ratio to lifetimes of slavery. It is simply to note a consonance of mental rupture.

The "double consciousness" of WEB DuBois that many black Americans live in is not unlike the double consciousness of the soldier in autumn (even if it's still his or her spring). Whether lately returned from the war in Iraq or guarding the memory of the last "Great War;" whether nursing a beer at the VFW or quietly living with all the horror clamped down and only the fierce memories of heightened life and comradeship allowed to percolate to the surface; whether having found an equipoise (no matter how delicate) or desperately seeking to replicate, or escape from, the high of combat; whether a soldier, a marine, an airman or a sailor, that person is always searching for a place in civil society, and for the right tone of life in the place to which that service was rendered. To paraphrase DuBois, it is a struggle to be both a warrior and a civilian, both from within and from without.

For myself, I struggle to harmonize my love of this nation with my sickness at the things we've been up to lately. My heart is broken; I long to be as proud of this nation as I am of many of her soldiers. And once we open this window into the contradictions of American citizenship, we can see it is a fun-house mirror-maze of double images. Like all mazes, though, there is the promise of finding a way out.

Memorial Day is a day to acknowledge the wounds on the body politic. To see, no matter our own position on any of the litany of conflicts in which our nation has engaged, that those wars have torn a hole in the civic fabric. It is a day for us to acknowledge our national wounds: psychic, moral, bodily -- even political. To look at that place where we have gashed ourselves in the throes of this experiment and say, "Here have we hurt, and yet, we are."

The fulcrum of "and yet" is why the parade. Early Memorial Day parades had two distinct parts: A procession to the cemetery on the edge of town and a recession from there to the town center. On the way to the cemetery, the marchers would be solemn. The band would play a hymn-like tune. The procession would arrive for a dedication and "Taps" -- a Civil War bugle call that once simply signaled the end of the day -- would be played. But on the return to the center of the town, the march becomes a celebration--not of victory, but of enduring hope.

Here have we hurt, and yet, we are.

Hope in this setting is so important. It is the feeling that we are still moving forward, together. A belief that the dream is still viable, still worthwhile. That whatever we do, we do together. That however bitterly we tear at one another, we share a nation and, at root, hold the same essential liberties sacred. That above all we might one day come to a place where discord is marginal, not central, to civic life.

Memorial Day, therefore, is about our community. In order to celebrate it, we should be drawing the community in. This isn't a celebration for the VFW and the Legion (an organization that I am ambivalent about to say the least), though they may be its organizers. Rather than organizing the Day and then expecting the public to come, we need to be reaching out the public and inviting them to participate, not just watch.

I "marched" in my first Memorial Day parade wearing a T-Ball uniform and sneakers. And I marched in every one after that until I graduated from High School. I marched as a Cub Scout, a Boy Scout and a member of the High School Band. In our parade we had: the 4-H; the Pony Club; every kid who played in the town's recreational T-ball, Softball, Jr. Little League and Little League; Mr. Criz and his clydesdales; the community garden group; the Lions Club; the Kiwanis; the High School Band; the Combined Jr. High Bands; the Bethany Community School band, pounding away on their drums and glockenspiels; the Library; the Bethany VFD; the Staties; the Governor's Horse Guard (stabled in town); the EMT's; the Downs brothers, dressed as clowns to pick up after the horses; the Brownies and Girl Scouts; the Bethany Wanderers (hiking group); the Bethany Conservation Commission (us. w/ the Wanderers); the Shriners; at least half a dozen antique automobiles. And that's just off the top of my head.

The parade route was 1.7 miles long. Yes, it was. I mapped it on Google maps. It included two right-wheels (three if you count the start): one onto Peck Road (a steep uphill), and one just past the reviewing stand (yes, there was a reviewing stand) into the parking lot of the Town Hall. Gordon Carrington was always on the reviewing stand (1st Selectman for about 80 years), and the kid who played "Taps" during the laying of the wreath hid out on the side stairs of the Town Hall and always seemed to crack a note or two. Then, after the wreath, we'd all troop back down Peck Road to the Fire Station and get hotdogs from Mr. DiMayo, who grilled squinting into the smoke with a little bit of dip in his lip, and we'd play on the fire trucks.

In 1990, the year before I graduated high school and left town, the population of Bethany was 4,670. The population of Portland is 64,000. The Portland Parade could have chased itself around the monument in Monument Square, around the base of Columbia, "To Her Sons Who Died for the Union." There were few people on the street.

There are a couple of reasons, I think. One is that it has become a three-day holiday weekend. The other is that no one has asked them, or their kids, to participate. Where were the neighborhood groups? Munjoy Hill, Bayside, East Bayside, Western Promenade and the West End all have neighborhood groups. What about the Friends of Deering Oaks Park? What about the historical society/Portland Monuments? Portland Parks and Rec? Friends of Evergreen Cemetery? Portland Trails? A Company of Girls Theater Group? Were the Kiwanis there? What about the Portland Boxing Club? What about our new immigrant communities--don't you think we can do a better job with that? Don't they have something to celebrate here? And shouldn't we, a nation of immigrants, be equally excited to celebrate them? (I guarangoddamtee you the Legion didn't reach out to them.) What about PATHS and Casco Bay HS? I bet those PATHS guys could make up a ripping float.

My point is, this should be a community event. It should be a moment to look around and see who we are, to come together to share sorrow, to honor sacrifice and loss, and then to celebrate ourselves for moving this democracy forward, one day at a time.

We're in an historic moment where the only sacrifice we've been called to make as a community is to support the troops by shopping. But Memorial Day is a chance to stitch the fabric of our Community (capitalized on purpose) a little tighter together.

We need to take that chance.

KJG 1919-2001


Adam said...

What an incredible essay on the meaning of Memorial Day. I feel we would disagree on several political issues. After all, you sent Petrimax an issue of Mother Jones. I almost had to go to a doctor my eyes rolled so far back into my head ;)

Memorial Day is to acknowledge that we are Americans as a Community. We should not be ashamed to be American, regardless of the policies of our government.

We should come together better as a community on a day as special as Memorial Day.

I wish I could have said this as well as you.

Brown said...

Adam: When you get your eyes fixed, you ought at least to try the Harpers ;-) Think of it as an acquired taste.

Glad you like it. People ought to differ. But we are still one people.

crumthekid said...

Excellent and thoughtful commentary on the day. I have profound memories of being the young guy playing taps at various small towns near my high school home of Tiffin, Ohio. The very small nearby towns sometimes needed someone to play taps for them and they would call my high school and the band director would send us out to various locations. I was always awed by the rows and rows of grey haired gentlemen, ususally sitting near a monument or on the green in front of the courthouse, and their solemnity and honor of the day. Your comments about the parade make me worry that current high schoolers aren't having the same experience.

Second, the principal of the local High School began a great tradition when he arrived at the school. He always has some kind of ceremony before a holiday weekend or even a day off. He believes that students should know why they have a day off--and I agree. The most moving of these experiences was on a Veteran's Day when one of the older teachers spoke of his experience in Vietnam. He spoke to nearly 2000 students and visitors who were assembled on the front lawn of the high school. In his speech he described the feelings that he went through as a platoon leader writing letters home to the families of his fallen comrades. As he described the impact of writing those 27 letters the assemblage stood in rapt silence. The people there that day knew the meaning of the day.

In both examples young people, myself as a bugler and the student body in Concord, were nudged a bit toward respecting the day. Some may think that we shouldn't need to push the young in this way but as a teacher I feel that it is a critical part of a complete education. Every day as teachers we take students to places that are uncomfortable and new--places that they would not have ventured without our guidance. In my examples I'm sure that the 2000 people assembled did not immediately become parade converts--but I'm sure that some did--and that's why we need to continue to show them the way.