THROUGH THE WOODS: Thank you to those who served

Cemetery flags. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

THIS MEMORIAL DAY WEEKEND there will be parades and barbecues and family celebrations and the drum beats penetrate our souls. I have been in so many parades I want to grab my old cornet, don my Ockawamick Central School band uniform and march into the line. Parade music is irresistible and John Philip Sousa really knew how to get us moving. Irving Berlin’s (possibly borrowed from Scott Joplin’s notes) Alexander’s Ragtime Band is an old favorite. We used to crank up my grandmother’s antique cylinder record player and tap our feet or high step around the living room. We had an Allis Chalmers bulldozer on the farm so I thought it was Allis Chalmer’s Ragtime Band, but that was okay, I eventually got the correct title after entertaining the adults who thought this was an interesting variation.

Unless you have gone through all the training you don’t realize how much work goes into a parade. We had a good ex-Navy band teacher who took us out on the football field and spent hours training us to stay in step, in line, and properly coordinate turns. The real trick was in addition to all this you had to play the small sheet music that kept trying to fly out of the lyre, which held it clamped above the horn. My hat would slide down over my eyes unless I stuffed something under the band, and the heavy wool uniform was murder on a very hot day.

With help from my father, I learned to make a proper knot for the tie. Finally, we would march through Hudson in high spirits while stepping over the horse droppings and trying to spot family along the streets. Actually, we were pretty good and the hours of practice paid off. One year someone tossed a firecracker into the sousaphone bell and that added another bit of excitement. Fortunately, no one was hurt and the horn was not damaged.

Sometimes we got to play taps at the flag pole in Philmont at a more solemn ceremony and stood with our local veterans and admired their varied uniforms. In those years the reality of war and what it means to us had not been absorbed. It takes time and experience to gain this. Stories from family members came to us as we matured. A very old neighbor’s father had witnessed a friend’s eyes sucked out by a passing cannonball during the Civil War. That made a sobering impression as well as one about a great-great grandfather’s near death from dysentery at a southern prison camp in Louisiana. A great uncle was at Verdun in WW I, several were shot down over Germany in WW II and one fortunately survived and returned from a concentration camp.

Then Vietnam brought it all very close to home with the loss of friends and the physical and especially the psychological damage to those who made it back. One year I visited the American Cemetery at Verdun in France on the eve of Maundy Thursday. It was an overwhelming experience to stand alone with my niece on the steps of the Chapel and look out over the rows and rows of thousands of white grave markers. It was green and mowed to perfection with birds singing nearby. It was hard to comprehend the horrors that occurred in this area with all the conflicting scenes of beauty along the peaceful river banks.

Remnants of concrete bunkers and fortresses are everywhere along the roads. Not far away is a cemetery of the German soldiers. It is overgrown with weeds and brush and has only a small path trodden down by possibly family members visiting from just over the border. It is another grim contrast, and those families also remember and grieve.

War is so hard to comprehend. Many go through experiences we will never understand and hopefully we will never have to experience for ourselves. We feel immense gratitude to all our military for maintaining our freedom. As the drums beat we stand, remember, and salute you.

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