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Life as Performance Art

     On Memorial Day, there is no place I would rather be than in a small Midwest town. More specifically, it means a small town in southwestern Michigan.  Like the rest of the country on that day, we will pause for a few minutes to remember and pay tribute to the men and women who made the supreme sacrifice for the freedoms, liberty, and the way of life that we treasure.  In small towns, the observance is home-grown, and that means it is straight from the heart. .
     It all begins a week or so before, when members of service organizations and others go out to the cemeteries to place a small American flag in the metal holder than has the place of honor on the tombstone of each veteran. At about the same time, individuals and families will make their annual pilgrimage to the cemeteries to plant the urns in the family plot. Others place potted flowers, as a remembrance of loved ones.  More and more, florists are asked to do this task for those who live too far away, or for other good reasons, to make the trip back to the old hometown to perform this ritual.
     We know the city crew will place the Stars and Stripes on the sidewalks of the parade route, rain or shine. Even so, we always hope the skies will be clear early on Memorial Day, and in the quiet early morning we will hear birds singing.  Perhaps it brings to mind a line from John McCrea’s poem, In Flanders Field, where he mentions poppies and larks flying over the battlefield.
     An hour or more before the appointed time, the participants, mostly members of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign War, will assemble in their Legion Hall. Just as they have done for years, they will unfurl the flags, check their rifles, and good-naturedly tease one another about needing an extender in their leather belt that holsters the flag they will proudly carry.  Some years someone in uniform, perhaps on Active Duty, or in the Reserves or National Guard, will turn up, and be instantly enfolded into the ceremony with smiles and handshakes. They will be asked where they are serving, just as new inductees ask of one another in the early days of basic training.
     That is because the participants deeply care about each other. They will ask where an absent long-time member might be, and someone will say, “I don’t think her health is up to it this year,” or say that he is not fully recovered from a serious illness.  Sometimes, an older veteran will wince as they very reluctantly admit that perhaps this year, they should ride rather than march.  What matters is that they turned out for the morning, and of course, there will be a ride for them. 
    Occasionally an older vet, a bit confused because their mind is beginning to wander, will turn up. With just a nod of the head, a couple of participants will take it upon themselves to march on either side of their comrade, gently prompting him or her.  Again, what matters is that they turned out for the ceremony.
    A small-town Memorial Day parade is always led by a police car, and long before the Flag Bearers and Color Guard fall in, their friends and family members are peering down the street, eager to see the flashing lights.
     Most often, it is a short, small parade.  There is nothing fancy about it. Veterans carrying flags, followed by a squad carrying their rifles, and behind them, veterans who fall in to participate in this tribute.  Marching in step is a goal, not a requirement on this day. In many towns, the public-school band provides music.  Often, it is the songs from each branch of the service, perhaps with another march or two added.  No one is throwing candy, and no politician is out touting for votes at the next election.  A fire truck or two traditionally bring up the rear of the parade.
     The ceremony itself is traditional. The commanding officer instructs the sergeant-at-arms to place the wreath in its place of honor as we are invited to remember the great sacrifice of those in uniform, and the sacrifices made by their family.  That message is re-emphasized by the speaker when he or she gives the address. We sing our National Anthem, perhaps an impromptu God Bless America.  We fight back a tear or lump in our throat when the bugler plays Taps, knowing it is for those who didn’t come home. We stand at attention at the volley rifle shots and bow our head as the chaplain gives the benediction.  The commanding officer thanks us for being there and announces that the ceremony is concluded.
    That’s it.
    We all have our own reasons to participate in the traditions of Memorial Day.  Perhaps it was because our parents took us to the parades many years ago and we want to continue that tradition.   Perhaps we are still grieving the loss of a friend or loved one, and we are there for them.  Above all, we are there because we owe a debt of gratitude to these men and women and their families. They gave their all so we could live in a nation that cherishes liberty, justice, and freedom.  
      That brief service seems to change people. You and I will see Old Glory in a different light. The colors are more vivid, and because we just experience the best of America that morning, there is a renewed hope for the United States in our heart and mind.
    The same feeling is true about their neighbors. Maybe later that day, while standing at the grill, we remember that if it hadn’t been for the men and women who sacrificed their lives for this country, the freedoms we sometimes take for granted would not exist. That includes the freedom to turn a brat or burger into a burnt offering.
    Memorial Day is not just for remembering the past, but a time to reflect on the deeper meaning of the day and resolve to do everything within our power to build upon the foundation they laid.  It is a time to rededicate ourselves to applying the ideals and virtues that make this an exceptional country.
    It takes more than talking. It’s action that counts.  It means working to strengthen our democracy and protect our Constitution. It means supporting our troops and their families – and not just on Memorial Day morning, but every day. When we remember the sacrifices of those honored on Memorial Day, we understand it as a call to roll up our sleeves to speak against injustice, discrimination, and inequality.
    Like nowhere else in the nation, the residents of small towns in the Midwest understand this call to action. Quietly, and without much fanfare, they roll up their sleeves and get to work.
    I am glad to be here.

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