In small towns all across the United States, Americans will be celebrating our Veterans’ Day holiday on Tuesday, November 11. For schoolchildren, it will be mean a day off from classes. For federal employees it will be day off from work. Mail doesn’t move. Banks are closed but the stock markets are open. And sadly, major retailers have turned the day into one of the major shopping sale days of the year. I think that’s hardly what President Woodrow Wilson, who first proclaimed November 11 as Armistice Day, or President Dwight Eisenhower who, in 1954, expanded the holiday as a day to honor all military veterans, had in mind when they made the holiday an official American observance.
But in small towns all across the United States, the original intention of the holiday–to celebrate and recognize all those who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces–is carried out in parades, ceremonies, flag-flying, grave decorating, speeches, band concerts, patriotic performances and special dinners for veterans. In my small, hometown of Parsons, KS., (population 10,164), the local Veterans’ of Foreign Wars (VFW) post, hosts a simple, but moving program for anyone who wants to attend. I happened to be visiting my father, a World War II U.S. Army veteran, on two recent Veterans’ Days–in 2011 and 2013–and accompanied him to the program. At the time, I didn’t know that the 2013 program would be his last. Now, the memories and photographs I took on that day, hold even more significance for me.
World War II veterans are dying at a rate of approximately 55 a day. Of the 16 million who served in World War II, only a little more than a million survive. My Dad was among a handful of them in attendance at the 2013 VFW ceremony. Those who were there that day, proudly rose to their feet when the VFW’s color guard strode in with the American flag. I was surprised at how touched I was to watch some of these old soldiers and sailors struggle to push themselves up from their chairs to stand and salute the flag. I could tell that my own father was saddened that he could not join them because he was seated in a wheelchair and not strong enough at the time to stand up. But he removed his cap and placed his hand over his heart as the flag passed by. And again, when each branch of the military’s own flag was introduced and carried into the room, the veterans, young and old representing that branch, proudly arose to be recognized by the others in the audience.
The program was appropriately patriotic but not war-mongering. No one among these assembled veterans, I think was a fan of war. I know my own Dad certainly wasn’t. He felt great concern for the safety of the young troops serving in our country’s current conflicts. He believed that no one should have to experience what they, as veterans, had to endure. Interestingly, at the reunions I attended with my father for his Army outfit, the young soldiers who came to meet their predecessors expressed the opinion that my Dad’s generation went through much more than they, as modern-day soldiers, have ever had to face, even if deployed overseas.
At the Parsons program, the local post commander, dressed in full military uniform introduced the day’s speaker, neither of whom I really remember. Their speeches came nowhere close to being as stirring as sitting and talking and acknowledging the veteran’s who were in the room that day. The local high school band played a few selections, a little off-pitch, of familiar patriotic music before and during the program. They struck up Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes” by as everyone filed out to the parking lot outside for the twenty-one gun salute and the playing of the plaintive tune, ‘Taps.’
On both the Veterans’ Days when I was present, the red, white and blue of the American flags flying on the poles lining the gravel lot, flapped in the wind and stood out dramatically against the bright blue of the sky. Many of the flags flying that day at the post had been donated by local families who had received them upon their own veteran’s death. I now own one of those flags. And while I haven’t yet the heart to part with it, I think that it may one day fly with those flags in a private salute to my Dad who, during his own 92-year lifetime, saluted so many others.