“More than a three-day weekend”
On Memorial Day 70 years ago, I marched in my first Decoration’s Day parade, with vivid memories of the traditions that carried the meaning of the day, before it became a three-day weekend.
Last Monday, some of the traditions played out in a small Norwegian-American town of Northwood, North Dakota, population 925, judging from how the community cares for its cemetery with the avenues of flags flying, the Memorial Park on Main Street, and the community turn-out of residents for a ceremony and dinner honoring the services of Veterans.
In retrospect, my day in 1944 is indelible in my memory when, as a Boy Scout with a snare drum strapped to one leg and sounding the cadence, I lead a hometown parade, marching just behind an aging four-member American Legion Honor Guard. I was the only one in town with a snare drum.
My hometown was “The Cattle Capitol of North Dakota”—a county seat of under 1,000 residents in McHenry County—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,” with signs naming an organization (gas was rationed then), a pre-war flatbed truck with a dozen beginning members of the school band (with a band director away at war, they hadn’t learned to march yet), 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 streets were lined with those at home, mostly children and elderly citizens, as those not serving in the war zones were on the West Coast in defense factories.
Each community member wore a VFW Buddy Poppy on their attire, which were red paper flowers made by disabled and needy veterans and sold to support Veteran Homes and services to military children and families.
Memorial Day was a somber day in my youth, remembering those who served in harm’s way, like my older brother as a “SeaBee” attached to the Marines in the Pacific, who later returned suffering from combat stress (PTSD).
A community-wide memorial church service opened the day, the parade followed, families gathered at the cemeteries, often put down a tablecloth on the cemetery grass to share food with those gathered, accompanied by a full day of stories and camaraderie among the families. It was a day when food from farms and ranches were shared as a “potluck,” without the wartime issued meat ration cards.
The day of May 30 in those days was called “Declaration Day,” declared since 1868 to remember the 600,000 Union and Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln dedicated national cemeteries—like Gettysburg—as memorial cemeteries. In 1971, a federal law took effect to designate Memorial Day as the fourth Monday of May, creating a three-day national holiday. Today, Memorial Day honors the memory of all service members from all wars.
During my career in the Army’s Medical Service Corps from the ‘50s to the ‘80s, one assignment during Korea and Vietnam time frames was in a military clinic adjacent to Arlington Cemetery that served the Pentagon and service families on the Virginia side of the Potomac River.
Because of the crowds that gathered each Memorial Day to see the current President (Kennedy my first year there) place a wreath on the site of the “Unknown Soldier,” the day was one of our busiest for duty.
From where I was posted in a medical clinic, I could hear the volleys of rifle shots from the honor guard and the taps of the bugler, while attending to those with frailties or distraught by memories of loss. (The same was true when President Kennedy was buried there.)
My military experience put “Memorial Day” in perspective, because I knew a number that returned as heroes from distant wars and some that didn’t return.
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 a Memorial Building, sustained by long-standing military service organizations, the original meaning still prevails, at least in a couple of hours of traditional activities.
Memorial Day in Northwood, N.D., tops any program that I’ve seen in rural communities over the last decade. 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.
The local American Legion Post actively prepares 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.
Last year, the Legion Post honored three WWII veterans – all named Wally, who grew up together and are still living in Northwood. (See the story of an interview with one of the Wallys at dakotaheritageinstitute.com/?cat=6).
Today, Memorial Day has broadened to include a mix of family reunions, commercial sales, and community events over a three-day weekend.
With TV extravaganzas and Internet connectivity, citizenry is changing the way that people watch, listen, and interact with online stories (YouTube and social media) or via TV through broadcasting nation-wide celebrations to hear the narrated, documentary-style stories of veterans.
Service organizations, like American Legion, VFW, Wounded Warriors, and a host of dedicated groups are trying new ways to bring back the meaning of Memorial Day to recognize in personal stories that it is more than a three-day weekend.
This article originally appeared in the May 30, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.