Not just a day off
Memorial Day is much more than just a long weekend
The day is indelible in my memory when, as a Boy Scout with a snare drum strapped to one leg and sounding the cadence, I lead of a hometown parade in 1944, marching just behind an aging four-member American Legion Honor Guard.
The place was a rural ranching town in North Dakota – only five blocks wide with a Main Street nine blocks long that was filled with older Legion veterans marching to the drum beat. Behind the veterans were a few horse-drawn “floats” naming an organization (gas was rationed), a pre-war flatbed truck with a dozen beginning members of the school band and a long stream of youth carrying small American Flags, many on horseback that stretched to a staging area at the edge of town.
The military members of the community were still at war, but the streets were lined with those at home, each wearing a VFW red poppy on their attire and remembering those who were serving in harm’s way, like my older brother as a “SeaBee” in the Pacific.
The meaning of this somber day in my life was imbedded in my mind. The seriousness of my role as a Boy Scout that day gave me pride, although I was the only one in town with a snare drum. The school music teacher was off to war and the school band hadn’t learned to march.
I also remember how important that day was for everyone’s hope that the war would soon end. A memorial church service opened the day, a gathering at the cemeteries, the parade, and a full day of camaraderie among the families with plenty of food from farms and ranches to be shared at a “potluck” without the issued meat ration cards.
The day of May 30 in those days was called “Declaration Day,” declared since 1868 to remember Union and Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War.
In my youth, families for a week planted live flowers on the graves of relatives, and often put down a tablecloth on the cemetery grass to share food with those gathered for the beautification of graves and the stories that went with it (this practice is said to be the original meaning of “potluck” from Civil War days).
Memorial Day was officially authorized as a federal holiday on the last Monday in May in 1971, ostensibly to allow government workers to participate in community events.
Nowadays, Memorial Day weekend has evolved into a holiday weekend for family gatherings, for shopping sprees, and for events often centered on TV specials.
However, in many rural towns, each with its own “Memorial Park” or Memorial Building, with long-standing military service organizations, the original meaning still prevails, at least in a couple of hours of traditional activities.
Memorial Day in Northwood (p. 941) tops any program that I’ve seen over the last decade in rural N.D. In 2000, the town was considered the highest concentration per capita of Norwegian-Americans in the Nation. A dialect from Hallingdal can be heard at the Senior Center that has not been heard in Norway for over a century, without influence of change in usage.
This year, the local American Legion Post actively is preparing for their annual program by putting up 50 large, flowing American Flags on tall white poles along the town’s cemetery corridors. In addition, the Post adorns seven remote rural cemeteries in the area with small flags on every known veteran’s grave, including a single grave on an abandoned farmstead.
In June, the Post is planning a day to honor three WWII veterans – all named Wally, who grew up together and are still living in Northwood. (Meet one of the Wallys at: http://
Currently, several student service organizations at University of North Dakota (UND) are planning to support recent returnees on their job search by producing one-minute film stories of their life experience as video résumés. A proposed American Legion Post 401 is being organized on campus for the 500 + veteran-students attending classes at UND.
Communities or groups are trying new ways to bring back the meaning of Memorial Day by engaging the public through short digital films of veterans on YouTube or dedicated Websites.
For example, “Carry The Load” project by two individuals has organized a 1700-mile relay-walk from West Point in New York to Dallas, Texas during May. An American Flag is handed off every five-mile segment to volunteers who lead those that join in locally. Rallies are organized along the route, which connect with children and families about an honored person, cause, message or mission.
In N.D., a project is underway to create a “virtual parade” between Memorial Day and Veterans Day of short veteran stories from across the prairie landscape and showcase on the Web local stories that people with smart phones can view, using off-the-shelf technologies, either onsite or online.
“Showcasing” life stories of veterans in short digital films can help bring back the meaning of Memorial Day to the next generation.
This article originally appeared in the May 24, 2013 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.