Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day

On Memorial Day, there can be no doubt that I live in a small town.

I get up, put on my band uniform, and walk up town to City Hall, where my friends and I in the marching version of our 159-year-old town band grab our hats and our music and get ready to march down the main street (it's named Liberty Street in my town). My brother, sister-in-law, and wife all play in the band; some of the band members are among my oldest friends in the world, and some are former students.

We march down the main drag and end at a tree-covered city park, where folks gather on the grass for a Memorial Day program. Wreaths are laid on crosses, one for each war. The names of all the veterans who died in the last year are read aloud, followed by an honor-guard of local vets firing off a salute, followed by taps (played by two trumpet players, standing in opposite corners of the park, one playing as an echo of the other). You can hear the last echoes of the trumpets fade into the sounds of birds and passing traffic.

There's always a speaker and a speech that may veer off into "next to of course god america i love you land of the pilgrims' and so forth" territory, but I can't get offended by any of it. The list of the dead always includes families, and sometimes individuals, whom I know, and I can't help thinking that whether the war was fought in a good cause or a bad one, these are people who did their duty as best they could understand it, even at the risk of life and limb. 

It pops me back to a conversation I had with a teacher at an end-of-year gathering Friday night. We were talking about how younger teachers aren't so involved with union leadership, and he said that it may be in part that some people aren't fighters, that they don't want to make enemies. That may seem like a wimpy reason to my big city brethren and sistren, but here in small towns, it's a part of contract negotiations and strikes and battles over the schools-- the people we sit across a negotiating table from are also literally the people next door, the people we sing in church choir with, even the people we're related to. In small town politics there is no such thing as going at someone unrestrained with both barrels blazing as if we'll never have to face each other again. 

So I get the "let's not make enemies" concern. But I've had the same concern myself, back in my union president days, and I already knew the answer before he expressed the concern-- sometimes you already have enemies, and the only question is whether or not you are going to stand up to them.

Memorial Day, for me, is a reminder that you don't always get to choose your battles. Sometimes you battles choose you. 

After the ceremony in the park is over, my wife and I walked home, walked the dog, graded some papers, took a nap. Then we walked over to my in-laws, because I live in a small town and on a day like today, I can conduct all my business without ever getting in a car. The in-laws grilled some food, we face-timed my sister-in-law in Hawaii, we talked about Stuff, and then my wife and I headed home. 

In the end, Memorial Day also reminds me that I am extraordinarily blessed/privileged/fortunate (pick the one that suits your belief system), the recipient of many advantages and benefits that I haven't really earned. Even my battles are privileged ones--  I know that a year from now nobody is going to be talking about how I died in the service of my country or my cause, nor will I have died because I had the misfortune to be seen as threat requiring a lethal response. 

In a way, one of my privileges/blessings/fortunes is that I get at least one more year that a bunch of other folks do not. Memorial Day reminds me not to waste it, to try make good choices, to try not to sleepwalk through it. I live in a small place, a place I'm firmly rooted to, and yet in the last year, I've become more closely connected through this little box to a larger, wider world as well, and been given a chance to use my voice in that world. We are living through interesting times, as many generations before us have. Whatever gifts, battles, blessings, weaknesses, flaws, and struggles have come to me, I want to try to rise and meet them with whatever I have that might be of use. I am not a big deal, and I will not change the world. But none of the people whose names were read today were world-changing titans, either. They just did what they felt they needed to do, and I'm pretty sure that's a plenty tall order all by itself.



  1. Military service is a promise -- nothing more, and nothing less.

  2. Please remember that what you do, though not necessarily earthshaking or life-threatening in comparison to fighting in a war, is still very important to teachers like me who read your blog to feel understood, uplifted and also feel that there's hope for democratically-run, not-for-profit public education in the future. Thank you Peter!

  3. As an old soldier and a former member of a hostage rescue unit, I assure you you serve. You give voice to our concerns with wit and humor. Thank you for what you do Peter.