The Middle School Band, Veteran’s Day, 2009
This Fall has been like a guest who arrives late, and then doesn’t know when to go home. All around us, Fall hit about the time October got going good–very much the usual time. The trees in our town stayed stubbornly green. A little before Halloween the colors began to show. By this morning, the linden trees beside my front walk had bowed to the inevitable and dropped all their leaves. Across the street, the giant maple is orange, gold and brown. My pussywillow tree–the Liz Taylor of my lawn–is still stubbornly green.
When I carried my coffee out onto the porch this morning and saw the bright blue sky I said, “Oh, good. I’ll get some good parade shots. Blue sky, and lots of colored leaves.”
“You’ll have to do it fast,” said the House Leroy. “It’s supposed to cloud over.”
“Not before I get my pictures,” I said, lifting my chin. And when, as the HL had predicted, the clouds closed in about 9:30 this morning, we all just pretended it was still sunny. Willpower goes a long way at our house.
The reason for all this weather and leaf concern was the Veteran’s Day Parade. Our town has a lot of parades. We have the Christmas Parade, the Easter Parade, the Memorial Day Parade, the Fourth of July Parade, the Muddy Frogwater Days Parade, and today, we had the Veteran’s Day Parade. In fact, just about any excuse is good enough for washing up the tractor or the family car, Sharpieing a tagboard sign, and cruising through town behind the Middle School Marching Band. We do like our parades.
Mostly this is because by and large we also like our neighbors, who are most likely either going to cruise by on their tractor, or wave to us as we pass. I have become something of a professional observer at the parades. This is because I am The Mother Of the Sousaphone Player, as in past years I was the Woman Behind the Stroller. Few people know my name, but by now most of the people in town recognize Patrick as he marches by, head, shoulders, and Sousaphone taller than the rest of the band.
By now we have parade days down to a science. I drop Patrick off at the school, then go to the Burger Hut, where I partake of a Breakfast Bob, Tater Tots, and Diet Pepsi while I crack jokes with the owner (she is the sister to Patrick’s fifth-grade teacher, dated the son of his teacher last year, and is daughter to the woman who runs our other favorite local hangout, the Sub Shop), and then drive to my designated Parade Viewing and Picture-Taking Spot halfway through the series of dogleg turns that connect our town’s two Main Streets.
They run roughly parallel, and when the two halves of our town merged neither town was willing to sacrifice the prestige of having Main Street. Here, we would rather walk than sit in the back of the bus. Parades go from Freewater School, at the north end of Freewater’s Main Street, down to the south end by the beauty shop, through the first dog leg past the senior citizen’s action center that used to be the train depot, through another dogleg past the no-man’s-land between-town area where the Post Office and flower shop are, past the new breakfast place, past the Burger Hut, down the long angled street past the McGlaughlin High School, where Patrick will go next year, and eye doctor, to the now out-of-business dollar store parking lot, and then right to Central Middle School.
The best place to watch is right at the second dog leg by the Post Office. This morning I had company–a grandfatherly policeman in charge of roping off the street and preventing the parade from shooting down side street to the football field and I stood together, me holding my camera, he holding his bright yellow roll of “Police Line Do Not Cross” ribbon.
“So who are you taking pictures of?” he asked.
“My son,” I said. “He’s the tuba player.”
“Oh, yeah,” the policeman said.
The band rounded the first dogleg and came into view, following the town fire truck and four men on beautiful motorcycles, in patriotic do-rags and helmets. I knew about the do-rags because they had been at the diner, too.
“Yep, there he is,” the policeman said. “Head and shoulders above everybody else. He’s a big boy.”
“Yeah,” I said absently, peering through my viewfinder and zooming in on the band. I snapped and snapped as the band marched briskly down the street to “The Magnificent Seven,” this year’s song. Last year’s song was “Rawhide,” and I still miss it, though Patrick told me he was grateful for the switch. “It’s harder than you think, Mom, marching for two miles through a parade playing ‘Rawhide’ over and over and over again.” I wonder if he is finding “The Magnificent Seven” more gripping.
The band wheels through the dogleg. I snap frantically. And then a car cruises into my viewfinder. It’s just a plain little economy car, full of people, all waving and smiling. The tagboard sign says, “Lebanon.” The car cruises by and another one noses into the viewfinder. “World War II,” it says. The next car says, “Viet Nam.” The next says, “Iraq.” “Afghanistan.” “Korea.” And on and on.
And suddenly I can no longer see because I am crying. This isn’t a parade about America. This is a parade about the people in my town, my neighbors, farmers, parents at my son’s school. I want to take my camera down but now I can’t, because everyone will see that I’m crying.
I think of the children who have just passed. I think of my son, carrying the tuba, and his friend capering in his home made school mascot suit and throwing candy. I think of the football team, and the wrestlers.
And all the while, the mid-size family sedans, pickups, equipment trailers, and jeeps are rolling by, filled with men and women who have left our quiet town, where a major holiday involves tagboard signs, frog races, and water balloon cannons, and gone around the world to kill people much like us–why?
There’s got to be a better way of figuring things out, I think angrily, hiding my tears behind my camera. We can’t keep sending our men, women, and children off to die. A tractor rolls by. More cars. National Guardsmen on a hay wagon. I watch, and I wonder about all the men and women who should be in those damned cars, waving and smiling, and who are not because they are fighting demons too savage to allow them to leave the house, in hospitals being patched back together, or dead.
The cost of freedom is terribly, terribly high. But here is the worst part: the cost of ego, of vaingloriousness, of wars fought for unjust reasons is just as high. And so, this Veteran’s Day, I’d like to say two things.
First, thank you to every person who has fought to preserve the things we hold most dear. Just or unjust, righteous war or not, you laid your life on the line for something in which you believed. Thank you.
Second, for the sakes of our children, of our towns, of our country, and of our world, we have to find another way to figure things out. All across America, all around the world, quiet little towns like ours are losing people we can’t afford to lose.
Third, here is my wish–that some day, Veteran’s Days will become things of the past not because we have forgotten the sacrifices we ask of our children, but because we have finally, at long last, learned how to differ without destroying each other.