Remembering Memorial Day

My old friend, David Wrubel and I, speak regularly. We’ve known each other for more than 50 years. By now, we have a massive compendium of stories covering every aspect of our lives. We don’t dwell much on past glories or ignominious missteps. Frankly, we have enough going on in our lives – most of it quite good, really – that generally precludes us lapsing into past glories or foibles.

But the other day, David went for a deep dive set of Memorial Day recollections. We lived in different towns and went to different high schools. But we were both in the school band. I don’t know what David played. I played the cymbals, which was one of the coolest, most sought after gigs ever…

The Memorial Day drill was the same for both us. Up early Monday morning, full band regalia on (heavy white blazer, thick black pants, classic black, plastic-brimmed military style hat), I’d schlep to the high school parking lot, climb on the yellow school bus. We’d unload several blocks from the Middletown green, our ultimate destination, instruments in hand.

There was another high school at the other end of Middletown. It was a nicer, newer place with a tonier group of kids. Their band, directed by  Bruce Schmottlach [I don’t remember where I put my keys, but I still remember the band director from the OTHER school]  was larger and much classier. The MHS band, led by Santo Fragilio, was a funkier and slightly disreputable assortment of geeks and stoners and whatnot. If you ever saw the movie, Stripes, well that gang was us.

We would all be lined up in a large parade formation. Our band was mercifully placed first, towards the front. Thus, we were spared the embarrassment sure to come if we had followed the superior musicians of Woodrow Wilson. It was a scene.

There were a number of different organizations that marched in the Memorial Day parade: Police, National Guard, Knights of Columbus, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and so on. And always sharing a prominent position were the vets.

There were always a few WWI survivors along with a much larger contingent of WWII vets, most of them in their garrison caps. In those years (1968-1972), I don’t remember a very large presence of Vietnam vets. But I know they were there.

I know that Vietnam was in our heads, that all of my male band compatriots marching along, playing patriotic tunes, had to be thinking, “What if I get drafted?” I was surely pondering that question. It was terrifying.

As a kid, I was fascinated by WWII, by the good guys vs the bad guys. It was utterly ambiguous. To be so clearly identified as the liberators, saving the world from unimaginable pain, was so reassuring. That was a trope of American culture, a foundational truth of my childhood.  It began to take a beating in Korea, only to fall apart in Vietnam. Ever since then, in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Cambodia and Laos, there’s nothing but blurred lines.

At the Middletown Green, after all of the marchers took their places, there were the speeches, and I can’t tell you what anyone said. But I do remember when they played Taps. I remember seeing crusty old men, guys who had waded up to their shoulders in swamp, guys who sat in foxholes in utter panic, deafened by the sounds of mortar and artillery shells, overwhelmed by the crackle of gunfire, guys whose souls were brutalized by war. They saluted as the bugle sounded, tears running down their cheeks as they remembered the friends they lost, as they remembered the pieces of their souls sacrificed on battlefields so far away. As Taps ended, the vets would pull out handkerchiefs and hastily wipe up their tears. The crowd would disperse, and we’d walk to our school bus.

Of course, there are still good guys and bad guys in war. There are the tyrants and the oppressors and the liberators. But if I learned anything on the town green, it is that we’d better be exquisitely certain about what this nation is doing when we send young men and women into harm’s way in the name of America. The losses we sustain are too high to squander even one person’s life. And we have lost so many lives.

May the memory of all of those men and women who gave their lives for our country rest in peace.

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