A Festival of Flags

Today is Memorial Day here in the U.S.  It’s celebrated with family get togethers, barbeques, concerts, parades, races, car shows, about anything you can think of to bring people together. Originally, it was created to honor those who served in our nation’s military and that’s still the real reason for the holiday, which, over time, has come to mark the start of summer in most of the country. (Summer comes about a month and a half later to the Pacific Northwest.)

But in small towns across America, people still take time to salute those who served and they do it in ways that aren’t the big spectacles you find in places like Washington D.C. or our other large metropolises.  To me, those small town commemorative services seem more genuine and reflect the true heart and soul of this country. Just ordinary people paying tribute to fathers, sons, uncles, aunts, mothers, daughters, brothers, sisters and cousins who gave their lives in military service to this country.

More than 1700 flags line the paths of the cemetery on Memorial Day weekend.

Northwest Washington state, where I live now, is nestled in a corner of the U.S. considered to be progressive politically and not so prone to an overabundance of patriotic fervor even though the state has a fair number of military bases located here.  Yet we have one of the most moving Memorial Day displays I’ve ever seen.

The Festival of Flags is sponsored by the local American Legion post and a local funeral home. It takes place at noon at the Greenacres Memorial Park located in neighboring Ferndale. I only just discovered this ceremony a couple of years ago when a friend of mine mentioned that she was attending. I suspect that many local residents, like myself, still aren’t aware of it.

A quiet bench offers a place for people to reflect.

The three-hour event starts at noon with food and music, this year provided by the barbershop group known as the Mount Baker Toppers. The opening act is followed by a short remembrance speech delivered by a military officer from somewhere in the region. This year’s ceremony will close with the unveiling of a new World War I memorial and the release of a dove, a nod to the peace that never quite seems to last for long in today’s world.

However the true highlight of the event is the more than 1,700 American flags that flap in the wind and line the pathways of the beautiful cemetery grounds throughout the Memorial Day weekend.  I went out to the cemetery two years ago just to have a look.  It was the year after my Dad had died–hard to believe it’s now three years since his passing–and I felt going out to the cemetery, particularly on Memorial Day, was a way I could remember him and pay my respects since I couldn’t visit the little country cemetery in Kansas where he and my mother are buried.

My first glimpse of the Festival of Flags was from the rain spotted window of my car,.

Memorial Day was rainy and dreary that year. But the day brightened for me when I pulled off the road, drove through the cemetery gates and caught my first view of the red, white and blues through the rain spotted window of my car. I sat quietly in my car reflecting on the year before while hoping that the rain would let up.

The gentle breeze kept the flags furling.

Eventually it turned to a light drizzle so I grabbed my camera, hopped out and began to photograph the flags.  Capturing the flags, so to speak, was a challenge. There were so many. A gentle breeze furled and unfurled the Star Spangled banners as a photographed. I pretty well had the cemetery to myself, except for a handful of people who had come early to set up for the ceremony that followed.

I walked through the forest of flags, not having to say a word to anyone, just me, my camera and, I felt, my Dad.  The time was a welcome break from the usual Memorial Day madness and just what I needed to personally honor the day. Whatever you do this day, I hope you’ll find a way to personally give tribute to those you love who may have given their lives or served time in our armed forces.

Small Town Salutes American Vets

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.

American flags wave proudly outside the Parsons VFW post.
American flags wave proudly outside the Parsons VFW post.

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.

The program cover from the Parsons VFW Veterans Day ceremony in 2011. Coincidentally the date of this event was 11/11/11. The original Armistice Day was declared to commemorate the World War II armistice signed on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.
The program cover from the Parsons VFW Veterans Day ceremony in 2011. Coincidentally the date of this event was 11/11/11. The original Armistice Day was declared to commemorate the World War II armistice signed on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

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.

Longtime friends as well as World War II veterans, my Dad talks with Pete after the VFW ceremony in 2013. Our World War II vets are vanishing at a rapid rate.
Longtime friends as well as World War II veterans, my Dad talks with Pete after the VFW ceremony in 2011. Our World War II vets are vanishing at a rapid rate.

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.

My Dad, wearing the cap with his battalion emblem on it, stands alongside a restored military jeep at the 2011 VFW Veterans Day ceremony.
My Dad, wearing the cap with his battalion emblem on it, stands alongside a restored military jeep at the 2011 VFW Veterans Day ceremony.

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.’

The Parsons VFW color guard prepares to give the 21-gun salute during the Veterans Day program.
The Parsons VFW color guard prepares to give the 21-gun salute during the Veterans Day program.

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.

My Dad's favorite cap, with a logo identifying him as a World War II veteran, rests quietly beside the pot of poppies at the 2013 Veterans Day ceremony.
My Dad’s favorite cap, with a logo identifying him as a World War II veteran on the front side, rests quietly beside the pot of poppies at the 2013 Veterans Day ceremony.