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Memorial Day

Column: 
Veteran visiting the grave of a comrade

Memorial Day comes to the island with spinnaker set and a red hat; war has drifted far from our shores in this late May. We have no draft lotteries or volunteer musters anymore, nor does anyone burn their draft cards or escape to Canada.  The National Guard barely touches down at the airport, the Peace Vigils have been canceled, and the V.F.W. Hall remains a half created dream.  The End of History came with a Mount Gay and tonic.

The Memorial Day Parade will not come off this year.  It hasn’t been a particularly big draw in the recent past, unfortunately.  Not many line up on the sidewalks in folding chairs and umbrellas to watch the band and the fire trucks.  Figawi continues to burn downtown, bushes need to be pruned, rooms need to be cleaned.  The fire trucks, the police cars, and the old warriors marched, but few put aside the work of the day to watch them. 

Moreover, time has floated us to a point when only four veterans are available to march and, by their own admission, they aren’t up for it; “two of us hurt for days afterward.”  It would be difficult for the most angry and vehement right wing talk show hosts to rouse much outrage and patriotic fervor for a parade featuring so few soldiers marching.

Where have all the veterans gone?  Pete Seeger would tell us that they have gone to graveyards, every one, and he would, partially, be true. The boys of Pointe Du Hoc have mostly moved on, and the boys of Inchon and of Khe  Sanh are next in the grand parade. 

It’s also true that they have gone to Naples, Florida and Durham, North Carolina.  Warmer weather, friendlier golf courses, and lucrative real estate agreements have sent some of the island veterans off.  Soldiers or not, they are subject to the whims and winds of the pension and the paycheck.   Nantucket has become a wonderful place for the hedge fund magnate and the bond salesman, but a harsh spot for the mason, the plumber, and the one-time PFC. 

While we have fewer and fewer veterans, the island has more and more soldiers. Our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq continue to grind on.  Nantucketers return to tour upon tour out in the sand and rocks.  Hopefully, in the near future, they will make their way back to friendly dunes.  They, too, can take their place in the parade. 

The few times when I went to see the veterans walk, the boys and I sat at the head of Main Street, near the spire of the Civil War monument.  The parade was a small affair in its best days.  Two fire trucks, the police cars, a truck or two from the airport, some civic groups, some kids, Nantucket’s Junior Miss, some politicians and the veterans.   They stepped down Milk Street, rested at the Monument, and continued up Main.  Seated on the curb with the little boys (waiting for the fire trucks and holding their ears), the seven ages of man passed by: children to youths to young men to middle age to town fathers to grand fathers to those at the last.  And, far too quickly, they all pass by.  The viewers leave and the boys, now no longer holding their ears, and I are left with backed up traffic and the memorial. 

The Civil War Memorial stands in the middle of the road and forces the Escorts and Escalades to deal with it.  Unlike our modern wars, which can be relegated to unpopular cable channels and non-fiction bookshelves, the obelisk stands in the middle of the road to the picnic, the commute to work, the bottled water delivery route and the scenic tour.  It won’t be ignored.  It won’t be pushed aside.  It won’t pass by or disappear off the calendar or sit unfinished in the moors.  It obstructs our everyday, stops the sun in place for a moment, and then lets you pass. 

Most of the names on the monument did not die in battle. Some died from cannon and minie ball, but most died on the march from pneumonia, typhoid, and exhaustion.  Fittingly, the memorial stands atop an old grindstone.  These lives were ground up by the follies and whims of war;  “the useless slaughter of gallant men.”  Some of the bodies made it home, but many were left in ditches by the side of a road in Virginia or in an unmarked grave in Pennsylvania.  Like modern soldiers, most of these men were poor and took to soldiering for the best reason there is: their kids needed food. They picked up arms, joined with friends, and marched.

They are gone, like all but four of the rest of the veterans.  Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.  fought with many of the names on the obelisk, in Massachusett’s Twentieth.  In one of his Memorial Day addresses, he wrote that the triumph of the soldier is to be forgotten.  His children should live in peace and prosperity; they should never have to see or experience the depraved and diffident face of war.  As Holmes’ own Memorial Day parade thinned, he felt that it was right for the soldier to be forgotten.  “This is also part of the soldier’s faith: having known great things, to be content with silence.”

Wisdom forgotten all too often becomes wisdom relearned.  And wisdom, like everything else, comes at a steep price.  War veterans march to the old commands and remember what those of us never learned.  They remember the idiocy and folly of “present ARMS” ; they remember the mind-numbing regularity of the march; they remember the parade of men before the reviewing stand; and they remember the men lost from those ranks.  They remember standing in tropical heat, weighed down with seventy pounds worth of pack and weapon, and marching with men now dead; today, they would stand in the cool of an island spring, weighed down with age, and march as survivors. 

This Memorial Day, the living will no longer march from the cemetery.  May we not forget the steps of the dead.


Bob Barsanti's novel, Milestone Road, was published last summer.  His previously published book of essays about Nantucket, Sand in My Shoes, is available here.  He will be featured with local authors on Saturday, June 22nd, as part of the 2013 Nantucket Book Festival.

(Photo credit:  www.photoblog.statesman.com)