A Memorial Day Tribute

With Memorial Day only a few days in our collective rearview mirror, it doesn’t seem too late to reflect on that notable holiday.

Nearly every Memorial Day at 11 a.m. for the past 17 years, I have taken my place in the clarinet section of the “Amazing” Worthington City Band to share in the local ceremony dedicated to remembering those whose lives have been lost while serving in the United States Armed Forces. We play a familiar, short list of tunes–“America,” “The Navy Hymn,” “Nearer, My God, To Thee,” the “Servicemen’s Salute” medley and the National Anthem–interspersed with readings such as Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” and “In Flanders Fields.”

I’ll admit that in some years my thoughts have drifted from the moment at hand, perhaps due to a distraction in the park, a lovely spring morning or an impending rainstorm. On Monday, however, my attention was riveted on each element of the service, and in my heart and mind I gave sincere tribute to those who paid the ultimate price for our country and to others who have faithfully served in a branch of the U.S. military.

Among them were my mother’s cousins: Windom native Jimmy Cowan, who survived four horrendous years in a Japanese P.O.W. camp (the infamous Cabanatuan Camp, the subject of Hampton Sides’ book “Ghost Soldiers”) during World War II only to die when his transport ship was bombed as he was finally on his way to freedom, and Harrison Frost, a WW II pilot who was shot down over Germany and endured disfiguring maltreatment at the hands of German civilians before becoming an official prisoner of war.

Also on the list were World War I veterans: my great-uncle Bob Cowan, another Windom native, who was shot during combat in France in the war’s last month, and my husband’s maternal grandfather, Ernest Sluggett, who lied about his age in order to enlist in the Canadian Army.

My husband’s paternal grandfather captained an LST assigned to the Normandy beaches on D-Day, and my elder brother’s health was permanently compromised as a result of service in Kuwait during Desert Storm.

The horrors of the Korean War sadly sprang to life for me when I recently read Colonel William Richardson’s “Valleys of Death: A Memoir of the Korean War,” and my Uncle Phil logged two difficult years in the U.S. Army on the 49th parallel in Korea from 1953-55. His brother, my Uncle Ward, also served the U.S. Army at White Sands Proving Ground, New Mexico, during those same two years.

My father-in-law passed away on May 21, just before Memorial Day 2013. Drafted by the U.S. Navy in 1961, he was a battalion and regimental surgeon stationed with the Marine Corps at Guantanamo Bay during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. And my father spent two years with the U.S. Army in Germany in the late 1950s.

This rich history of family military service should make it easy to remember those who give of themselves and their skills for the United States. In truth, we really need these special moments–Memorial Day, Veterans Day–to set aside time and thought on their behalf, and to remind us we owe them a debt of gratitude.

One of my favorite depictions of Decoration Day–founded  to honor Civil War veterans and the forerunner of Memorial Day–is in “Emily of Deep Valley,” a beloved novel, circa 1912, by acclaimed author (and Mankato native) Maud Hart Lovelace. The heroine, Emily, lived with her Grandfather Webster, a Civil War veteran, and she relished each tradition marked on Decoration Day.

“Deep Valley’s ‘old soldiers’ always visited the schools on Decoration Day morning. Then the schools, shops and offices closed, and at one-thirty came the parade,” reported the book’s narrator. With the policemen’s band playing “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” the parade proceeded with this description: “A tremendous emotional roar of welcome almost drowned out the sprightly tune. For the ‘old soldiers’ were coming, Deep Valley’s survivors of the now historic Civil War, six old men in blue uniforms with badges…”

Emily defends the need to honor these veterans when a haughty and scornful boyfriend, Don Hunt, calls Decoration Day “bunk:” “I imagine that everyone gives a little thought to what the day means…it comes in May when everything’s so pretty…and it’s always the same. It’s part of growing up in America…today means something.”

So, barring an unforeseen conflict or inclement weather, I already know where I’ll be on Memorial Day 2014–in the Chautauqua Park bandshell, paying tribute and sparing a few thoughts for those both in and out of my family who’ve more than earned our respect.

3 Responses

  1. Doris Cowan

    I just realized – you may not have known, Jane, that your Uncle Ward served in the army in 1953-1955. He was stationed at White Sands Proving Ground, New Mexico at the time of our wedding – we spent the first year of our married life in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

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