We seem to have lost something. Kinda feels like somewhere along the road our shared value in honoring the past has given way to commercial needs of the present.
I can’t remember the first “Decoration Day” parade I attended, or the first solemn ceremony on the bridge overlooking the Crow River at the west end of town. I do though remember the poppies. Bright red “Buddy” poppies with green stems that could be twisted around the button on your shirt or attached to the rear view mirror of a car.
I remember my mother getting my brother and me up and washed and dressed in our better-than-usual clothes for the Decoration Day parade, followed by two memorial services. One at the river and another at the cemetery. It was a day to show respect for our war dead, and showing up unwashed or looking too casual simply would not do. American standards for “dressing up” had not yet come crashing down. And so, looking as presentable as possible, we would stand by as dad dropped the top on our dark blue Buick Roadmaster convertible for the trip downtown.
God, how I loved that car. I would settle into what seemed like acres of plush leather in the back seat, feeling that no matter what might happen, everything would eventually be all right. It was more than a car, it was a symbol of American renewal following World War II. A symbol of victory and wealth. We were Americans, a free people. There was no difficulty we could not overcome. I was too young to put it all into words, but I could feel it just the same.
The parade moved west up James Street. Members of the American Legion and the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) marched solemnly along behind a color guard made up of uniformed veterans carrying ceremonial rifles. Townspeople lined the street and applauded as the units marched by, paying homage to the men and women who went off to war at Gettysburg, fought in the trenches in France, charged up San Juan Hill, faced a wall of machine gun fire at Normandy or froze to death on the 38th parallel in Korea.
These were the 1950’s. Vietnam had not yet gotten started. Afghanistan and Iraq were irrelevant. Our thoughts were about those men and women from our little town of Paynesville, Minnesota, who had given their lives for our country. And it was always on the same day. It was always on May 30th.
American flags were posted in front of every storefront and house. The VFW sold the crepe paper poppies for nickels, dimes and quarters, with the money providing assistance to state and national veteran’s rehab and service programs and the VFW National Home for Orphans and Widows. The whole town would turn out and everybody had at least one poppy. It was a tradition dating back to 1921, when the flowers were sold by the Franco American Children’s League to provide assistance to youngsters in areas of France and Belgium that were torn to pieces in World War I. Here in the U.S., the VFW conducted its first poppy sale in 1922. In 1923, they put needy and disabled veterans to work making the poppies. One year later, veterans assembled the poppies at a factory in Pittsburgh and the flowers were officially designated as “Buddy Poppies.”
Since then, the bright red paper flowers, believed to have been inspired by the poem “In Flanders Fields” have become the official memorial flower of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States. While their monetary value can be measured in pennies, their symbolic value is immeasurable. Decoration Day was that one day out of the year when we all stopped what we were doing to wear our buddy poppies, plant a flag in the front yard and consider the cost of remaining free. And it was always on May 30th.
It isn’t easy to pin it down, but the tradition of “Decoration Day” here in the U.S., may have started following the Civil War when widows and other loved ones went out to decorate the gravesites of fallen soldiers. There are any number of small towns that lay claim to having originated the idea of starting the tradition which eventually evolved into what is now called “Memorial Day” or more commonly the “Memorial Day Weekend.” But it’s not what it was.
The Decoration Day ceremony on the bridge over the Crow River always took place on May 30th. It didn’t matter which day of the week the 30th fell on. That day was Decoration Day, and everything stopped to honor our war dead. At the bridge, there would be prayers and suitable remembrances.
My grandmother would be there, shedding silent tears for her son Bud, a naval aviator who never returned from the South Pacific. My grandfather would pick up a big wreath made of buddy poppies and pitch it over the side of the bridge and down into the river. We stood there, watching the bright red wreath as it turned and swirled in the water, becoming smaller in the distance as the current carried it away.
Unhindered, the wreath would eventually find its way to the Mississippi River and then down to the Gulf. Nobody really thought it would get that far, but that wasn’t the point. We weren’t there to believe in something that could not happen, like a crepe paper wreath surviving a trip to Louisiana. We were there to remember and honor real people and real events. It left even the kids with a feeling for the importance of sacrifice and respect.
After the bridge, we would travel by car caravan out to the cemetery where the graves were decorated with American flags. Prayers were again said, followed by a 21-gun salute. After that, Leo Baumann would pick up his trumpet and end the ceremony by blowing taps. We would all head home, feeling as though we had at least tried to give something back to those who had given so much for us.
I don’t know whether they still hold a parade back in my hometown. I do know they continue to honor our war dead on Memorial Day. Or, forgive me, over the Memorial Day Weekend. I’ve seen pictures of it in the local paper. But I don’t hear anybody calling it “Decoration Day” anymore. I’m not sure why that went away. And I haven’t seen one buddy poppy since leaving Minnesota in the early 1970’s.
The “Memorial Day Weekend” was created by Congress through the National Holiday Act of 1971 which stipulates that the last Monday in May is Memorial Day. It gives everyone a three-day weekend featuring countless Memorial Day sales and a mad rush to the market for burgers, potato chips and plenty of beer for backyard barbecues. Some argue that a national day of remembrance created to honor our war dead has become a massive retail marketing opportunity, as millions of backyard parties and weekend getaways mark the beginning of the summer season. For many, it’s a three day celebration devoid of any thoughts or words about those who died in defense of our freedom.
People do still turn out to honor our war dead at the veteran’s cemeteries, but the number appears to have fallen with the passage of time. For some, the day seems to have lost its significance. Some, no longer feel a need to consider the sacrifices so many have made over so many years. Sacrifices made by people like Kenneth Olson. Ken’s family lived on a farm south of Lake Koronis in rural Minnesota. He graduated from Paynesville High School in 1963 and died in Vietnam on Mother’s Day in May of 1968. He was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously by President Richard Nixon.
The citation reads “For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.” It’s a fancy way of saying that Ken covered a grenade with his body to save the lives of his fellow soldiers.
And my high school classmate Darwin Sturtz. We played football together. I clearly remember more than one occasion when our quarterback Tom Vanderpool would fire the ball into a crowd. Somehow, Darwin would manage to get his hands on it and sprint for the goal line. In our freshman year we were undefeated. We graduated from Paynesville High School in 1966. A corporal in the Marine Corps, Darwin died in Vietnam in 1968.
So what’s it all about?
“Monster Memorial Day Sale! Prices Slashed! Huge Discounts On Summer Clothing! The Biggest Price Cutting Event In Our Entire History!”
The VFW has complained, “Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed greatly to the general public’s nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.”
United States Senator and Medal of Honor recipient, Daniel Inouye, has tried to do something about it. In 1999, Senator Inouye introduced Senate Bill 189, which proposed to once again, make May 30th Memorial Day. The bill was referred to committee and there it has stayed. While Congress has failed to act, the words of the poem continue to resonate:
“In Flanders Fields” by Lt. Col. John McCrae, MD (Canada)
In Flanders Fields the poppies blow,
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead.
Short days ago,
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved and now we lie,
In Flanders Fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe
To you, from failing hands, we throw,
The torch, be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us, who die,
We shall not sleep, though poppies
In Flanders Fields.
Click here for information on the continuing effort to once again designate May 30th as Memorial Day.
(Excerpted from “The Home That Holds My Heart”- copyright Ron Olsen)