I grew up in a pint-sized town where we had one of everything: one post office, one school, one grocery store and a helluva lot of one-dimensional thinking.
It’s not that I criticize the folks from my childhood home, because this was normal to me. We were a half-baked bunch of farmers and families with an unsevered umbilical cord that received a good, solid yank from the motherlands of northern Europe on a regular basis. Accents still sprouted through the soil even through years of plowing the old languages asunder. And my reference to half-baked couldn’t be truer, in that anyone who has spent some measurable amount of time in the upper parts of the Midwest will agree that the sun’s grace and efficacy was short-lived and insufficient. It usually left many of us looking like pallid, stodgy bakery goods with no leavening agent.
It was a safe and dependable place to grow up. The cows were content, the back roads straight and you could set your watch after waving to Mr. Sobieski as he headed out in the morning to go fishing and came back in for meals. Betty’s Café always served pie, the Miller’s butcher shop had the best big pickles in a barrel, and the lake was either covered by ice or algae, but sometimes both—depending upon the season.
There was another thing that happened like clockwork in our village, and that was the annual Memorial Day parade. As a scabby-kneed kid, all I cared about was being close enough to the curb to scoop up a Tootsie-Roll or two as the 4-H float came rolling by, its riders tossing candy into the crowds. And maybe I wanted to catch a glimpse of the oldest Gold Star Mother as she was transported down Main street, likely wishing she was being honored for anything else other than having lived longer than every other mother in our town who lost a son or daughter in dedication to our country’s service.
When I was old enough to ride the 4-H float myself, I only hoped my aim was sure and that I wouldn’t blind some poor elderly woman who was probably only there to show strong moral support to her Gold Star Mother best friend on the float behind me, and who was now weeping openly at having caught a Tootsie-Roll in the eye.
When I was a teenager, my main focus was finding some way to gain membership to the high school marching band. Since I played the oboe, my instrumental participation was nixed. My suggestion of having an oral surgeon striding in scrubs a foot behind me was a solution no one agreed with, as it would mess with our formation and color coordination, That meant I could twirl flags or rifles. Since the flags were three times the size of the rifles and much easier to spot if you screwed up on the routine, it was a no brainer. I learned how to snap, twist and hurl a chunk of wood. It was incredibly impressive. And incredibly loud if it fell. Which was often.
The coolest thing about the marching band—and in particular the flag and rifle corps—was that we were outfitted in full Scottish regalia. It was also the hottest thing about the marching band. Covered head to toe in folds, layers and bolts of heavy, tartan wool, we prayed it never rained during the parade, causing us to smell like fetid farm animals and creating a cavernous gap between us and the floats before or after the band. And we kept our fingers crossed it never got above fifty-two degrees, at which point you were beyond sweltering and marchers would start dropping like flies. As long as we could contain most of the drum section, folks didn’t seem to care. It wasn’t like we were throwing out candy or anything.
The parade lasted all of about five minutes, there being only the two floats and the marching band, but once you knew it was over, the whole town would follow behind and bring up the rear, walking in time to the remaining drummers until we reached our little town park and the local swimming hole, which was no bigger than a large rainwater puddle. Here, everyone would gather round the flagpole, listen to Pastor Anderson give his memorial sermon, see the wreath dedicated to our fallen soldiers be placed in position, hear the three or four men representing the American Legionnaires fire their arms in salute, and lastly, listen for the bugle player from the marching band—hidden somewhere distant in the woods—follow the gunfire with Taps. Our fingers were always crossed in hopes that he was not one of the members lost along the parade route. Our fingers were also crossed in hopes that he remembered to practice the night before.
No matter how old I was, what part I played, or what accents murmured around me, I understood the message: This was important.
More important than fishing, pie or pickles.
This was freedom.
My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing; land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrims’ pride, from every mountainside let freedom ring!
Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery (here) and what we all talked about down in the pub (here). And to see more of Robin Gott’s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone–click here.