I didn’t really have a Memorial Day homily to share, and I don’t like to fake it—especially not on this day. But damned if one didn’t come to me anyway.
I was working in the yard when our local parade passed not far from the house, out of sight but clearly audible. Marching band, sirens, cheers, the usual stuff. And then a procession of bagpipes. Nothing else but bagpipes and a snare drum.
I stopped what I was doing and just stared ahead. The timbre may not be for some, but to me it is as haunting as a wolf’s howl under a full moon. Shortly afterward, a church bell started tolling. Maybe every ten seconds for fifteen, twenty minutes, relentlessly. The pipes moved on, fading into the distance, but the tolling persisted.
I think I know what this day means. It used to be called Decoration Day, and it began as a tribute to fallen Union soldiers after the Civil War—their graves were decorated with flowers and other garlands. I knew the earlier name from Charles Ives who wrote a piece by that title. It is vintage Ives: chaotic, nostalgic, riotous, cacophonous. (You can hear it here.)
But a short passage he wrote to describe the piece struck me as familiar:
“In the early morning of a Memorial Day, a boy is awakened by martial music — a village band is marching down the street — and as the strains of Reeves’ majestic ‘[Second] Regiment March’ come nearer and nearer — he seems of a moment translated — a moment of vivid power comes, a consciousness of material nobility — an exultant something gleaming with the possibilities of his life — an assurance that nothing is impossible, and that the whole world lies at his feet.”
I, too, had a feeling of an “exultant something”, on hearing the bagpipes, though a different exultant something.
I thought about our need to pay tribute, our strong urge to remind ourselves that others are not forgotten. For some who have lost a son, a father, a wife, it may help. For others, and I’m thinking of Cindy Sheehan, they evidently no solace from honors, tributes, decorations. She is spending this Memorial Day honoring the terroristic dead of the “Freedom Flotilla” (aka the Kamikaze Konvoy), and calling for—oh, who cares what she’s calling for.
I can’t know Cindy Sheehan’s mind, and don’t wish to. But I wish she could find solace in the choice her son Casey willingly and proudly made: to serve his country. She did for a while, reluctantly perhaps, and even got to meet President Bush (if a blurry picture is to be believed). But on this day that an entire nation stops to honor the fallen in its wars, to decorate their graves, she is silent on the subject, and offensively hate-filled on another. And I think that’s sad.
Another summer has come, when we feel most American with our beach trips, our cookouts, our ball games. But the world is a little lighter than it was last year at this time, and a few familiar faces are missing from the picnic. I don’t know them or their pasts, and can only guess at their futures. I suppose they were the “exultant somethings” I was thinking of.
But I knew my words would be inadequate. I’ll conclude with how I began—with pipes.