Published: May 27, 2000
Clark Morphew, Staff Columnist
I just returned from Iowa, where my two brothers and I decorated the graves of my parents.
Even though neither of my parents served in the military, I am reminded as Memorial Day approaches that it is still important to keep those graves trimmed and beautiful. In fact, that was my father's one request after doctors told him he had inoperable brain cancer: ``All I ask is that you keep the graves looking good.''
So we have kept the plots neat, and every year we haul some petunias three miles north of our hometown and plant them in a little plastic urn my older brother bought several years ago.
Perpetual care doesn't exist in this cemetery, but a farmer down the road drives his riding lawn mower to the cemetery several times during the summer and cuts the grass. Each family then trims around their individual plot and plants some flowers. By Memorial Day, everything looks pretty good.
Driving home through three hours of interstate traffic yesterday, my mind kept filling with images from the past, particularly those years just after World War II when I was a lad.
At one end of Main Street, the town fathers erected a huge sign with all the names of the deceased soldiers and sailors from the war. And when another soldier was reported missing or dead, Jack Sheffel, the town cop and road maintenance man, would hoist a ladder and lean it against the sign and hang another name from the billboard of fallen heroes.
Those were somber moments, and many families in town were receiving death notice telegrams about their sons and daughters. And news would spread quickly through the town that another young man or woman had been killed in the war. Months later, the family home would display a small satin banner in a window: red, white and blue with a Christian cross or Jewish star of David in the center.
The little banners were meant to be badges of honor for a family. But I saw some families fade quickly after one of those banners was hung in their window. For some parents, the death of a son or daughter was just too much to bear.
There would be a week of preparation, when all the flower gardens were meticulously weeded and every lawn was mowed. Some people would put up special displays with flowered crosses on their lawns or at a loved one's grave. Then on Memorial Day, the public school band would gather in uniform in the driveway of the high school and begin the long march, five blocks to the downtown main street. There the musicians would line up behind the veterans carrying their weapons and dressed in their military uniforms.
People would actually get out of their cars, leave their houses and sit on the curbs as the band and the veterans marched by, right down Highway 18 to the cemetery. That great brass band's music magically -- and literally -- filled the small hometown with militaristic sounds. The cadence carried the crowd straight down the highway to its destination, where everyone sort of fanned out to their own relatives' graves.
For me, the big thrill was getting up early in the morning to join my Boy Scout troop in fastening paper red poppies on every veteran's grave. I always tried to run fast to the grave of my great-grandfather, Eli Hutchinson, who fought in the Civil War and lived to be 101. He died just a year after I was born.
About 10:30 a.m. on Memorial Day, the veterans would line up a circle by the cannon and its ammunition. Orders were shouted, and then the soldiers would fire off three rounds of blanks. And with each round, they would eject a shell casing. As soon as the soldiers stepped out of the circle, dozens of young boys, including myself, would wrestle each other to get one of the shell casings.
That old ritual has been modified during the years until, in most small towns, just a few people gather at the cemetery on Memorial Day to honor the fallen soldiers. Now it has become a family day -- potato salad and hamburgers on the grill.
And the wars -- the soldiers, the pain and sadness -- have almost been forgotten.
Columnist Clark Morphew (firstname.lastname@example.org)