Monday, May 18, 2009

Our Memorial Days must always be green

Years ago, a good friend was in charge of the cemetery maintenance in our small town. For some reason he didn’t get the cemetery in the proper condition for Memorial Day. Perhaps the weather didn’t cooperate, or he had staffing issues or maybe he just dropped the ball. I don't recall the details. It doesn't matter. Our town won’t accept excuses for not having its two cemeteries and its public properties green, tidy and mowed for Memorial Day. The city fired my friend within the week.

Yes, coming out of a long, cold winter there's always a lot that needs to be done in our city, which hasn't changed all that much in the 39 years that I've been there. The downtown could use fixing up and the streets are begging for more than a little patching. But these things will have to wait, as they always do, until after Memorial Day, which this year is almost upon us already, a week early it seems.

My town takes Memorial Day seriously, and it always has as far as I can tell, although the significance of the day must have grown enormously here more than a half century ago. This was a long time before I became a member of the community but I've heard the story often enough that it's become more real to me than anything I studied in high school history class.

On Nov. 25, 1940, just weeks before Pearl Harbor was attacked and the United States entered WWII, a sizable group of local men were inducted into the U.S. Army, proud members of Company C, 192nd Tank Battalion. After training at Fort Knox, KY, and Fort Polk, LA, they were wisked to San Francisco and then to the Phillipines. Within four months of landing in the Phillipines they had been captured by an invading Japanese army. Of the 32 local men captured by the Japanese, only 10 survived the “Bataan Death March” and 3 1/2 years of hard labor and starvation as prisoners of war before being released and returning to our small community.

I’m not sure if any of the men still survives, hopefully so. But other people keep the memory of those soldiers alive, and many years ago supported the naming of a then-new city elementary school Bataan School. That’s appropriate, of course, as is the attention we give to the grass and flowers in our cemeteries and public properties that, in some small way, recognizes the sacrifices of these and others on this one day of the year.

And here we are, just days away from another Memorial Day, and our public officials are making sure everything will be ready, especially the county courthouse property that's in the center of town. It gets special attention.

Two inmates wearing county jumpsuits, are spreading mulch around the trees and in the small gardens that dot the 4-acre property. The courthouse grass is always its darkest green as Memorial Day approaches. One of the inmates, obviously preferring the work and the open air to his jail cell, tells me they he will have opened and spread 488 bags of the mulch prior to this coming Monday morning.

The grassy property, dominated by the handsome 108-year-old sandstone courthouse building, is where the townsfolk will gather this coming Monday morning and line the street to watch the tiny parade pass by — the high school band, the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and Brownies, the three or four rows of marching veterans, some holding flags, others with rifles at their shoulders and many in uniforms now much too small.

The marchers, with locals following behind the police car that signals the end of the parade, will head north for another two blocks and then turn left to the west and stop and gather at a smallish rectangular Veteran’s Park behind the imposing brick former armory building, which is now an urgent care center. The park's purpose is easy enough to divine, even for a casual visitor. A hulk of a WWII tank and an adjacent “eternal flame" dominate the small area.

Following the script of every Memorial Day that I can recall, a local dignitary will lead a short solemn ceremony and the veterans will aim their rifles skyward and fire several rounds into the quiet morning sky.

This park too, as tiny as it is, will be freshly mowed, there will be flowers and everything will be tidy. Our small town will not look greener and its grounds will not again look so tidy and presentable as it does this and every Memorial Day. — Ron Hall

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