Memorial Day

The last Monday in May, early this year, the earliest it can be, because May ends on a Sunday.

In the United States, Memorial Day, formerly known as Decoration Day, is a day set aside to remember those dead who served in the various branches of the United States military, especially those who died in uniform.

In my Rochelle days Memorial Day was a parade day. Flags waved all along the parade route and, it seemed, from every house in town, flashes of red, white, and blue against what must always have been a clear blue sky; veterans squeezed into their old uniforms and marched; and the Rochelle Township High School band lead the way from the center of town to that year’s cemetery. There were two cemeteries in town — Lawnridge on the northwest edge of town, just north of the Canner, and St. Patrick’s on the southeast edge of town, on the road to Steward — and the parade destination alternated between the two.

When I was in elementary school, and even in junior high school, I would run along beside the parade, thrilled by the uniforms, by the display, by the cadence of the drums, and especially by the sound that arose when the parade approached the cemetery gate. “Bone yard!” the drum leader called out; the drummers released their snares, and the usual ringing sound of the drums suddenly became hollow, haunting. Were there other people in the parade? I don’t remember. I seem only to have paid attention to the band.

And then I entered high school, and became part of the band.

In the fall, the band focused on football marching — intricate formations and movements to entertain the crowd during half-time breaks. But in the spring, and especially through much of the month of May, the band would perfect a different set of marching skills in preparation for Memorial Day.

The Memorial Day parade in Rochelle came, of course, at the end of May — in those days before the Uniform Monday Holiday Act it was always on May 30 — and was followed in early June by the Harvard Milk Days parade at Harvard, Illinois. Much later, in September, came the Creston Booster Days parade in Creston, just five miles east of Rochelle. The other parades had their own excitement, but the Memorial Day parade was always special, at least to me. The other parades were just parades, without ceremonies.

Before I was in the band I usually went home, or on some childhood errand, when the parade stopped and the ceremonies at the cemetery began. But once I was in the band there was no escape.

The ceremonies consisted mainly of an appropriately patriotic speech, followed by the reading of the names. Usually various people took turns reading, in alphabetical order, the names of deceased Rochelle veterans, most buried in Rochelle cemeteries, most of them familiar Rochelle area family names. And when the reading was done, a lone trumpet would play taps, echoed by another lone trumpet in the distance. It was a moving ceremony, but it was long, and without much variation.

The end of May can be hot and humid in Rochelle, and our band uniforms, heavy wool in purple and white, were designed for winter wear, for standing in the wind and snow on a football field while we kept our mouthpieces in our pockets so that they wouldn’t freeze our lips when we raised our horns. The end of May was not like that.

My freshman year the band stood at parade rest during the ceremony at St. Patrick’s Cemetery. Parade rest is easier than attention, but it’s still standing, very still, in our wool uniforms, in our tall, hot plumed uniform hats, holding our instruments, in the sun on a hot, humid May day, at the end of a mile or two march. I had never seen anyone collapse before. As I stood, possibly even listening to the names, I happened to notice that a band member, a flute player, had started to waver, her whole body slowly leaning slightly back and forth. Then her knees gave way, and she folded down to the ground. I discreetly, for a freshman, glanced around and noticed a couple more bodies wavering, then dropping. No one actually fainted, as far as I recall, but throughout the ceremony a band official was quietly moving through our ranks, moving those who had collapsed out of the sun and giving them water. The next year, or perhaps the year after, there were chairs at the cemetery, and we were told to sit and remove our hats. It didn’t seem the same somehow, but it was much more pleasant. And I think that those whose names were being read would have understood.

But this year I am in Clarksburg. I don’t know if there was a parade, but my father’s flag flew on the front of our house. And we celebrated the day the way my father always did, by working in the yard.

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