Memorial Day

He came home from the war so it’s not technically his holiday, but I think of my dad on Memorial Day because he loved the parade. The Girl Scouts and the Boy Scouts, the high school band, the volunteer firemen (they were all men) and pretty much anybody else who could muster up some kind of uniform turned out to march down the main street of the town where I grew up. The bad boys lined the street with their pea shooters, aiming mostly at the bottoms of the Girl Scouts, and their aim was dead accurate, or at least that was my experience. The cop who manned the crossing at the school down the street from our house was there on the sidelines, his back pocket full of confiscated pea shooters. I’ve often wished I had a picture of that, but the mental image—and the feeling of vindication—is still clear.

I think in my father’s mind it stood for everything he had fought for, everything he’d wanted to come home to. What I realize now is that it represented an America that didn’t fully live up to the ideals of the flags we carried and saluted. There was a lot missing but I didn’t know that then, and sheltered as it was, it was a good place for someone who looked like me to grow up.

Interestingly enough, we never attended the memorial service that followed the parade, and my dad’s comments about the vets who put on their tired old uniforms and marched that day—or rode in convertibles, as the years passed and they, too, grew older—were not all that kind. He could, of course, have qualified for either the American Legion on the Veterans of Foreign Wars. I think I asked him once why he didn’t join. I believe he answered that they were sad men for whom the war was the most meaningful thing that had ever happened to them. After that we didn’t talk about it.

With time on my hands yesterday, I set about a task I’ve been meaning to get to for a while: reading through a collection of the letters he sent home to his mother and three older sisters, one married and living in another state, the other two still living at home (as they would for the rest of their lives). He was 19 years old, and full of enthusiasm. He thanks them for things they sent: new glasses (surely the Army should have taken care of that?), cookies and candy (he always had a sweet tooth), and a little money. His mother sent a dollar, the married sister and her husband sent five, and six bucks made him the richest man in his outfit. His monthly pay was $35.

Wherever he is, he keeps promising to try to find a place to have some pictures taken of himself, but he never quite gets to it. I picture his mother wanting something, proud but fearing the picture and a flag and some medals might be the last she has of him. She wanted to go down to see him when he was Florida, apparently, but couldn’t get a train reservation. For his part, he misses home and says he almost cried when he got the news that she wasn’t coming and the cat (mentioned in several previous letters) had died. He describes an interaction with a German POW, the first German he encountered; with no common language they simply exchange tentative smiles when he borrows the POW’s rake and then gives it back to him. “I couldn’t hate a kid like that,” he says.

The letters in the pile skip around a bit. I’ll try to organize them as I go through. He’s writing from the University of Florida in Gainesville, where he was assigned to attend classes before he was sent over to Germany, and the next letter in the pile is from Cherbourg after the war, where he’s an MP assigned to direct traffic. He reports that he was one of two men in his battery who were invited by the Army to apply to West Point, but when he went to work on the paperwork, it turned out that he was three months too old. And I was so relieved, wondering who he would have been if he’d gone. Wondering who I would have been, or if I’d have been at all, if he hadn’t returned home to Baltimore, attended Loyola College, and met my mother there.

In the box with the letters I found this picture, one I hadn’t seen before. It’s not the same vintage as the letters, since my parents didn’t meet until after the war was over. And they are SO impossibly young. So young it’s heartbreaking to me. There is so much ahead of them, and they have no idea how it will all unfold. I don’t mean that their lives were especially hard; remember that I grew up in that suburban town where the sun always shone on the Memorial Day parade. But as for anyone, there would be both joys and deep sorrows they knew nothing about then. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to be that young again.