Published on Monday, May 29, 2006 by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune
by Susan Lenfestey
In May I hear drums, or I think I do. The rhythmic rat-a-tat of my neighbor's roof project, the deep thrum of the subwoofers on the low-rider idling ahead of me, the sharp staccato burst of the pileated woodpecker in the newly lush canopy outside my window -- all take me back to the sounds of the Memorial Day of my childhood.
It's conditioning I suppose, part of being, well, a boomer -- the generation that grew up in the patriotic aftermath of World War II, when Memorial Day packed almost as much of a wallop as Christmas.
With time unwinding slowly off the spool back then, as it does for children, I didn't realize how fresh the war still was for the grown-ups around me. For children it was all sensory pleasure, the sounds and smells of summer, and a parade to kick it all off.
The night before Memorial Day my mother would go through the big storage chest and pull out summer clothes steeped in the scent of mothballs. My older sisters would retreat to their rooms to devise their patriotic flair in private, but I was happy with a pair of blue boxer-boy shorts and a T-shirt, white with broad red bands. We all knew that to be seen at the Memorial Day parade in anything other than red, white and blue would be almost as humiliating as showing up in nothing at all.
We got up early -- and on the real Memorial Day, none of this "closest Monday" bunk back then -- to decorate our bikes with streamers of crepe paper woven through the spokes and little flags taped to the handlebars.
While my family took forever eating breakfast, I'd be outside, riding up and down the little concrete apron sloping from the garage, admiring the flutter of my streamers, and that's when I'd hear the drums in the distance -- a thrilling ghostly sound, yet reassuring in its familiarity -- and race in to tell everyone that the parade was about to start.
Even though we decorated our bikes, we only rode to the parade, not in it. That was reserved for people in uniform, and there were lots of them in 1950, including Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, white-gloved hands awkwardly clasped around flagpoles secured hard against the belly. Each year some flush-faced Scout would invariably go all wobbly in the heat, just at the crest of the hill before it spilled out onto the village green.
This parade wasn't about floats, with mermaids waving from tissue-paper coral, or animated bears toting oversized balloons. It wasn't about fun, and yet it was fun to watch the rows and rows of men and women pass in front of us, jaws jutting, arms swinging in unison, the marching orders called out in sing-song cadences like jump-rope rhymes.
The bands and drum corps moved in step as well -- gleaming tubas that could swallow you up and trumpets played by men with veins bulging in their necks like pipe-cleaners, and those booming drums underlying the rat-a-tat ones, jiggling our stomachs as we clutched our ears.
In the village green the speeches droned on in front of the war memorial -- a massive block of stone etched with hundreds of names and anchored to its plinth by four oversized bronze eagles -- the monotony broken by a 21-gun salute and maybe a trio of low-flying jets.
As names were read and shiny magnolia-leaf wreaths placed at the foot of the monument, the grown-ups dabbed at their eyes, because even in my affluent Chicago suburb there had been shared sacrifice and enormous loss. So the secure happiness we children felt must have stemmed from something else, something we sensed beneath the sorrow -- perhaps relief that the war was over and hard-earned confidence in the future.
This Memorial Day I miss the fanfare and the drums, but most of all I miss the shared relief of a difficult chapter ending and the shared hope for a brighter one ahead. And I wonder, how do we honor our dead when we are asked not to notice?