By FRANK TERRANELLA
I always have mixed emotions about Memorial Day. When I was a kid, my town had a Memorial Day parade, and Little League baseball players, like me, always marched in it with our uniforms. We would gather in a parking lot, and the ancient World War I veterans would congregate with the middle-aged World War II and Korean War vets. Then the World War I vets would get to ride on a float while the rest would walk.
My father, who was a World War II veteran, never marched. Like many guys who saw things that no one should ever have to see, he came back from the war with only one thought – to forget he was ever in the army. He instilled in me a hatred of war, and a distrust of things military that survives to this day. And yet, I was enthralled by the smiling veterans on Memorial Day. These paunchy patriots were the guys who saved the world from fascism. I remember that some of the old veterans were so overweight by this time that I thought they were called doughboys because they looked like the Pillsbury character.
Like most boys, I had seen lots of war movies and the idea that these guys had fought for the country was a romantic one. Seeing that I was a little bit too much in awe of my Uncle Angelo, who was a World War I veteran, my grandfather was quick to point out,
“He never saw combat. He was a cook at Fort Dix. He never left New Jersey.”
I should mention that neither of my grandfathers served in World War I. They were both extremely good businessmen who managed to work the system and get out of the draft. I think there was also a pragmatic reason I was interested in these veterans and their stories. At the time, there was another war going on. And a draft that was just waiting for me to turn 18 so it could snatch me up into the army. So my interest was not purely academic. I really wondered what life in the army was like, and whether I would survive it like my father, and have psychic scars for the rest of my life, or would I try to work the system like my grandfathers? Or perhaps I could swing a safe job like my Uncle Angelo.
These were the thoughts going through my young brain as I watched the flags and the guns and the military vehicles roll through the streets of my town on Memorial Day in 1965. “Freedom is Not Free,” and “Thank a Veteran Today,” the banners read. And as I grew older, and the draft was abolished, I was very thankful that it was them rather than me who had to do the dirty work of defending the country.
So every Memorial Day I would seek out the veterans who sold poppies in public places to benefit those who had been braver than me. Every Memorial Day I flew the American flag that was draped over my father’s casket when he died. And every year attending Memorial Day festivities would choke me up when the bugler played, “Taps.”
My father instilled in me the idea that war is hell. But I also think it’s often unavoidable. So it’s important to take one day a year and honor those who have served, and especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. That’s why I will be in the cemetery on Memorial Day weekend paying my respect to the veterans in my family rather than heading for the beach.