Though my wife and I make our part-time home in Florida, in the port town of Fort Pierce, for the past six years we have made it a custom to attend Memorial Day services at Vero Beach a few miles up Route AIA. How this custom began we cannot recall; but each year, rain or shine (and in Florida it is usually the latter), we drive up to the park where veterans are memorialized.

Memorial Park is really a small island that sits out a bit from shore in the Intracoastal Waterway or Indian River, which flows between the mainland and the beach. The Intracoastal itself is a sort of memorial to war, for one of its purposes has been to provide a safe channel away from the dangers of submarines. In times of war, much freight can move in the waterway, from Canada to Key West, without ever going out to open sea. In any case, over a small footbridge that traverses the waterway is the park where the services are held.

<5p>On the island is a small set of benches set in amphitheater style. On Memorial Day, these are covered by an awning to keep out the glare of the morning sun. A flagpole is placed before the benches, and nearby is a ship’s bell. To the left of the island is a pathway, where soldiers from the county who died in Vietnam or any subsequent battle are honored by headstones every ten feet or so, each under a tree, mostly oleanders whose pink or white blossoms help obscure the sun. The island is about 500 yards square; its only purpose is to memorialize local American soldiers.


When we arrived, the high school band was still rehearsing and color guards from the American Legion and VFW posts, the Marine Corps League, the Navy League, the retired officers’ associations, the Disabled Veterans, and the Amvets had gathered in a semicircle around the flagpole, under the blazing sun. Various dignitaries chatted under a smaller marquee, waiting for the ceremony to begin, and red-coated Marine Corps League veterans hustled about, as they were the hosts. Meanwhile, microphones were tested, the band keyed in, and the radio station set up its truck.

At last the ceremony started, with the raising of the flag and that bugle call to the colors that every trained military person has heard morning after morning shortly after reveille. All the veterans stood. Most were grey-haired, their right hand held at attention, saluting that flag once again. Then the halyard raised the flag to the top of the pole, and the band intoned the national anthem, the real one that so many liberals want to replace with “America the Beautiful.” Standing tall and proud, the veterans held their salutes until the very last words. As the last strains echoed over the water, the color guards, commanded by a single voice, were directed to order arms, while all in attendance pledged allegiance to the flag.

Thence began the commemoration, as the local VFW chaplain offered a prayer. Next, Vero’s mayor, a retired officer, presented a profound reminder that soldiers have two sets of R&R: rest and relaxation, and, on days like today, remembrance and reflection. He spoke only five minutes, had the right tone, and finished eloquently. There followed another prayer. Last, a retired Marine colonel who, aside from warning us about the dangers ahead (the weapons still available to the Commonwealth of Independent States and, the “in” thing at defense seminars, the so-called Islamic bloc), noted that Memorial Day wasn’t always a time for huge sales at shopping malls and just another work day for many. He recalled a time when Memorial Day was more solemn, when stores and businesses closed, and when people soberly visited cemeteries to decorate tombs, to put American Legion flags on veterans’ graves and flowers on those of others.

Next, four World War I veterans were presented, thin old men in their 90’s, just four of them left in this retirement community. It reminded me of 1991 when my father, on what was to be his last Memorial Day, recalled as a boy seeing a few old Civil War veterans in his Pennsylvania hometown. And now here I was, gazing at the Great War veterans surrounded by greying World War II vets. I thought of my uncle, a newly commissioned ensign in 1941, who passed away last year. His generation, I thought, now was slipping from the stage.

In light of this, seeing the vets of World War I made me happy. They had survived a long time. Hopefully we could expect the World War II vets to survive for awhile as well—at least for another 24 years, the period between the two conflicts. Seeing these slight, bent old men, who remember a major war that most of us only vaguely know had something to do with Sarajevo, produced a sense of bonding between the past and the present that united me with the era of George Washington and the Minute Men. For these old vets had seen Spanish-American War and Civil War vets who, in turn, had seen Mexican War, Indian War, and War of 1812 vets, who in turn had seen . . .

Speeches done, the ceremony once again turned serious. The real ritual of Memorial Day was to begin. For indeed it is a ritual, a mode of remembrance that is practiced across America, one we all know by heart. Color guards are called to attention. Silence descends. Taps are played, in this case echo taps, with each stanza reinforced by a distant bugle. Taps finish. Silence descends again. Then the “Present arms” and the command to fire. One. Two. Three. Each round explodes and echoes across the blue water. “Order arms.” The ship’s bell tolls. All the vets, men and women, stand at attention. A bagpipe band rings out and marches in a circle with a lone piper. Silence returns. The high school band plays “God Bless America,” as everyone sings to the brilliant blue, cloudless sky above the circling pines that ring the island. Again silence, as the color guards march off, one at a time. Then the bagpipes wail and the high school band’s snare drums beat the retreat. It’s over. Not a few moist eyes are seen.

It may be that my memory is faulty, but it seems that in my youth, after World War II, Memorial Day was personified by this ritual. It was not a day of hot dogs and beaches, but of a bit of work, as flowers, almost always geraniums, and flags were carried to cemeteries. There, ceremonies were brief, like this one, with a few short speeches. For even politicians, like Vero’s mayor, understood the need for solemn dignity. Memorial Day was a serious affair, often accompanied by graveside prayers.

In contrast, I recall, the Fourth of July back then was the big holiday, the one that was turned into a weekend if possible, the one with a parade, long speeches, hot dogs, hamburgers, bunting, and bands the day long at the town park, crowned by evening fireworks. There was ritual, too, as the veterans. National Guard, Armed Forces reserves, school bands, 4-H clubs, and Shriners all marched. Back then, the Fourth was a national day, one of lighter mood than Memorial Day. I suppose one could say in the modern idiom that it was a day of in-your-face pride of country. Now it seems that the Fourth has disappeared, like the friends of my youth. Indeed, it is difficult to recall a real Fourth, except that God-awful one held for the Statue of Liberty, a monument to the French, not the American, Revolution, wherein naked girls tap-danced and celebrities sang—the kind of celebration you see in Third World dictatorships to celebrate the day of the coup d’etat when the tyrant triumphed, a day that President and Mrs. Marcos planned and reveled in. That ill-conceived Fourth embarrassed me with its assumption that Hollywood and vaudeville represent the American Dream.

Thus, all we have left today for a day of national ritual is Memorial Day—the one annual national Sabbath, so to speak. The Fourth seems to be an embarrassment to our elites; I guess it’s considered anti-English or something. As for Memorial Day, the good thing about it is that no one of any importance attends the ceremonies, so no one much worries about it. Who cares about those who do go, mostly older men, grey-haired, paunchy, lower-middle class, wearing Legion or Marine Corps League caps or Vietnam fatigues? If 200 people attend out of 50,000 in a town or county, it’s a big turnout. The ones who go really want to be there. It’s definitely not a chic event. For instance, the Vero newspaper and police station, when we called the night before, didn’t know what time their community’s ceremony would start. The person at the newspaper didn’t seem to care.

Throughout the land, Memorial Day is kept up by a group of institutions that are so much a part of the scenery that few people even notice them any more: primarily the veterans’ clubs, the Legion, and the VFW, whose posts nationwide decorate veterans’ graves, provide bugle and rifle teams for veterans’ funerals, support Little League and Senior League baseball and Softball teams, and tend guard over the traditions and rituals of life and death in America; the flag, the graves, the bunting, the bugle.

These groups also give their members nice places to gather, where they can eat and drink inexpensively. They also make low-cost insurance programs available, and, via their magazines, keep veterans apprised of issues of interest, as well as of annual meetings of their erstwhile military units. (For example, I thus joined the 4th Armored Division Association.) What’s nice about the Legion and the VFW is that they go on with their remembrance and reflection whether the wars are popular, like the recent Persian Gulf conflict, or unpopular, like Korea and Vietnam. For to them, remembrance is about sacrifice, and sacrifice means just that, including sacrifice of popularity.

In the last analysis, however. Legion and VTW posts are the mainstay not only of warrior America, but also of all the signs and symbols that touch all Americans, sooner or later: taps; the call to the colors and retreat; pipe bands playing “Gary Owen;” yellow ribbons; decorated graves. They are guardians of the symbols of the true America, even if some segments of our society fail to recognize this. For the truth is that in a clutch, the traditions of the VFW and Legion posts have more to do with the country than do the traditions of show business. How kitsch arc the Oscars, how dignified is taps. It is the difference between those who play soldiers, like John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, and Kevin Costner, and those who actually fought. Only in America are the former honored more than the latter.

Later that night, my wife and I walked out onto the Fort Pierce jetty, a stone-strewn finger of land that extends about an eighth of a mile into the ocean at the mouth of an inlet. The moon gleamed high above, as figures silently cast their lines into water where schools of snook seemed to be gathering. Like Vero’s Memorial Park, the Fort Pierce jetty is not a fancy place. Still, it has a certain attraction for men, women, and children of all ages, races, and income levels, who gather there in a universal ritual called fishing. Haitians, Cubans, Poles, WASPs, and God-knows-what-else are to be found there. All income groups, yuppies and six-pack buyers alike.

Strolling on the jetty that night I realized what had been missing from the Memorial Day service that morning: no one had mentioned that the Cold War is over, that the bombers and rockets no longer are on alert, that the fleet is on a peacetime watch, that, for the first time since Pearl Harbor, the threat of war has receded. Bells should have been rung at the churches; Te Deums or “Onward Christian Soldiers” or the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” ought to have been sung; and thanks ought to have been rendered that this danger to our Republic has disappeared. Our nation is at peace, our veterans are at peace, and our fishermen can fish in peace.

I recalled the graveyard at home with its veterans’ flags on Memorial Day, where nearly half the graves still are decorated each year, after a century of war; and I thought about all those who fought or stood guard, all those who went to Flanders or Normandy or Tarawa, all those who died near Panmunjom or Hue, all those who patrolled the DMZs of the Cold War. And I concluded that they had not sacrificed in vain. Peace had been achieved at last. Whatever would now come would be new, but the past had ended well. What had started at Sarajevo and had spread to St. Petersburg and Berlin and across the entire world, as far as Hanoi and Peking, had ended; and now, on this Memorial Day, that infamous town itself was aflame, now at the end of the century, when peace was on hand. Strange the symmetry of it all.