29 May 2006

The real thing

It was a dreary, drizzling, cold Memorial Day -- the kind that comes after a week of beautiful weather when the sun has shined and the sky has been robin's egg blue and everyone has been looking forward to the holiday weekend because the foretaste of gorgeous weather has been so divine. But then Memorial Day dawns cold and wet and everyone's hopes for the day deflate.
Even in the best weather this parade is for the die-hards. The American Legion leading off, the high school band following, a couple of antique tractors, a skittish group of horses sandwiched between the classic cars and the town firetrucks, it is eight blocks down Main Street to the cemetery where hundreds of people huddle around an aging sound-system to hear a person who has no training in public speaking address what it is to be an American. It is not perfect or even polished, but I make the two-hour trip home to Eureka for the Memorial Day parade and program because regardless of what is happening in our country, my faith in it is fortified there.
However, on this day with rain coming down, the plans had been changed. The parade had been cancelled and the program had been relocated to the high school gymnasium.
My sister, aunt and I were unloading a car in my grandparents' driveway. The cars were sloshing by on Main Street and we were hustling to get the goods inside before a little rain became a lot of rain.
But we were stopped in our tracks by a tinny rimshot. tap, tap, tap We looked around wondering what in the world was going on. The parade had been cancelled, right? tap, tap, tap Perfectly rhythmic, it got closer. tap, tap, tap
Four people appeared on the hill, marching in perfect step towards the oncoming traffic on Main Street. They were wearing full Civil War regalia. One was beating a drum. One was playing a fife. One was carrying a musket and in the center one carried the flag.
Through the drizzle, past cars splashing water at their feet, eyes straightforward, they marched. The only show of emotion on their faces was grim resolution. There was no fear or self-consciousness. No pride or proving. They were completely immersed in their task, doing exactly what it was they were to do, marching towards the cemetery to honor the dead. It was clear that nothing was going to keep them from doing their work. Nothing.
My sister, aunt and I were silent as speechless and they passed by. It was one of the most moving experiences I have ever had. We watched them silently, riveted by their devotion. And when they had passed, when we turned to look at each other, we all had tears in our eyes.
I have seen many parades since then. Some of have had fancy floats, exquisite bands, excellent timing, great candy, even.
But none have ever had the heart of that rainy Memorial Day parade. THAT parade was a lesson in patriotism I will never forget. THAT parade was an example of what being an American is all about.
O beautiful for heroes prov'd in liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved, And mercy more than life.
America! America! May God thy gold refine til' all success be nobleness,
And ev'ry gain divine. ~ Katharine Lee Bates

No comments: