We stand on the shore of the lake and wait. The shore is steep and spring green, winter having only recently retreated from my small home town in northern Wisconsin. It’s overcast, but still we squint up into the grey clouds, watching and listening for the airplane.
Every year on Memorial Day, just before the start of the parade, a small private plane flies in low over the lake on the edge of town. From the plane drops a single wreath, which falls slowly to the surface where it floats briefly before sinking to the bottom.
Over on main street we can hear the high school band warming up. A few short notes from a trumpet, some squeaking of woodwinds. It’s a small band — it’s a small school — and most of those kids probably don’t want to be there, but this is what they signed up for.
Then the airplane flies in, a window opens, and the wreath tumbles down. We don’t hear it hit the water, but we see the ripples spreading out, marking where it landed. Then it is quickly consumed by the surface waves stirred up by the wind, as if it had never been there.
There is the sudden crack of rifles, the local American Legion Post, firing a salute over the water, seven rifles firing three times to honor those who died at sea. Like the wreath dropped from the airplane, covered over by the waves as if they had never been there.
This has always been a part of Memorial Day in my home town. Every year, the wreath-drop followed by the salute. I imagine that if I could dive beneath the surface of the lake, I would see years and years of wreaths piled up on the lake bed. Though surely they have rotted, dissolved, become food for fishes. But in my mind they are still there, whole and eternal, marking the passage of time.
We head over to the main street where the American Legion has already lined up, taken its place at the head of the parade. They march down the main street, carrying flags, rifles over their shoulders. The troop is led by a short man who nevertheless has a commanding presence. He’s as tall as a shotgun and just as loud, barking out commands to his troop. He even barks orders to the crowd: “Hats off! Hats off! The flag is passing by!”
“Yes, sir!” replies a man standing behind us, sheepishly removing his cap.
The parade proceeds to the village hall, where a local minister offers a Memorial Day invocation. The Legion commander orders up another rifle salute and the high school band plays the National Anthem — not very well — but they are joined by the crowd, singing along.
Hats are off. Hands over hearts. It is good to see this. Even in our sharply divided times, people still stop and gather to honor the fallen. Our small town, like so many small towns, has a summer festival with a much longer parade, and a much larger crowd of mostly vacationers, spending their summers at lake cabins. Though Memorial Day kicks off the summer tourist season, the Memorial Day parade is still largely an event for the locals.
To one side of the village hall is a large memorial built of fieldstone. Two steps lead up onto the structure, where a large plaque features the names of those from our town — our neighbors — fallen in battle. If the first names of these soldiers aren’t recognizable, the last names are. They are the names of families we know. The names reach back across the decades. These are the fathers or brothers or sons we never knew. Increasingly, they are mothers or sisters or daughters.
When I was younger, the veterans marching in the Memorial Day parade were veterans of World War II. Possibly Korea. Then later, veterans of Vietnam, easier to pick out because they were generally much younger and quite a bit scruffier than their fellow veterans. If there were women marching in the parade back then, they were typically the Gold Star Mothers. Today we see women right in among the veterans, carrying the flags, toting the rifles.
Or added to the list on that fieldstone monument.
I have vague memories of seeing images from Vietnam on the evening news when I was very young, but I was only nine years old at the close of the war. It wasn’t until Desert Storm in 1991 that I personally knew anyone who went off to war — two men from our circle of friends who were in the National Guard.
For earlier generations, it was commonplace, and certainly today as well. But for those of us who grew up in the 70s and 80s, in a time of relative peace, it was an odd feeling to see our friends headed into battle on another side of the world. They didn’t want to be there, but this was what they signed up for. Off they went. And we stayed behind.
In the modern era, small towns frequently carry a larger burden of war. A survey by the Carsey Institute showed that during the Iraq war, rural areas of the nation accounted for 27 percent of the casualties while holding only 19 percent of the population. It is estimated that more than half the U.S. casualties came from towns of less than 25,000 people. One-fifth of the casualties were from towns of less than 5000.
My home town is less than 500. But there are quite a few names engraved on that monument. And there is room for more.
After the parade down main street, the marchers disband, then regroup at the local cemetery, a mile south of town.
The cemetery has been lined with flagpoles, flags flapping in the wind. A light rain has begun. We walk among the gravestones. Perhaps because of the day, our attention is drawn to the veterans’ grave markers. There are a lot of them. Near one end of the cemetery a podium has been set up, and the commander gives another speech. Those of us who are standing near the flagpoles are asked to lower them to half-mast. And because I am near one, I do my part — my very small part — and grab the ropes and haul it down. It feels surprisingly good to have this physical connection to the day, to do honor with this small act. It is also humbling, and I am not worthy to do it.
There is another 21-gun salute. Behind the podium, someone plays Taps, and then over on the other side of the cemetery, out of sight, another trumpet echoes it as if calling out from distant lands.
The ceremony over, I do my very small part again. I grasp the ropes and raise the flag.
Then we all return to our cars and head out to family gatherings and cook-outs.
But the dead stay behind.