Generations relive and share their March to the Sea memories
Tomorrow Tisbury School students make their annual March to the Sea, an event dedicated to the memory of those who fought and died in war. For many Island families, participation in the time-honored Memorial Day tradition spans several generations, ensuring that the true meaning of the holiday is kept alive.
This week several former Tisbury School students, some of whom are parents and grandparents of current students, shared their memories of marches past. Although time has changed some of their perceptions about what the tradition means, what matters most to them is that it continues. The cadenced march from the school to a dock or town beach, the ceremonial scattering of flowers upon the sea in honor of those lost in war, and a program filled with patriotic speeches and songs remain the timeless elements.
As Herb Ward, class of 1962, recalled, "When you've been away from the Island and come back, sooner or later, you're going to find yourself there, reliving those childhood memories and watching the march to the sea."
Memories of marches past
Records about when the Island's first children's March to the Sea started are sketchy. Although the event started as a commemoration to the Civil War dead sometime after Memorial Day observances first began in the 1870s, the focus of the march changed in the next century as World War I came to an end.
The Vineyard Gazette's May 22, 1919, issue reported that in honor of Memorial Day, children in the schools would "decorate the waters of the sea in memory of our dead sailors." In the years since, the March to the Sea ceremony has paid tribute to the memory of all who gave up their lives in war.
Photo from the Vincent family album, courtesy of Chris Baer
The March to the Sea always began at the school. Before the present facility was built on West William Street in 1929, Tisbury School was located at Centre and Church Streets, a site now occupied by town tennis courts. Until the regional high school opened in 1959, students attended Tisbury School for 12 years - and 12 marches.
Betty Honey, class of 1939, and Ruth Stiller, class of 1940, met in first grade and have been friends ever since. "I'm glad they've kept the same collection of events as when Ruthie and I were going down there," Ms. Honey said. "We'd go clear to the end of the dock and drop our flowers, with no thought given to the fact they would just come floating back again."
Ms. Stiller said she always adored the parade, and enjoyed it all over again when her four children took part while attending the school during the 1960s. Over the years, she watched her son and later a grandson playing the drums as they marched by.
Bob Tilton, class of 1949, took part in the march for 12 years and has seen many of his six children and 13 grandchildren do the same. "I've got a picture of one of my grandkids carrying a flag just like I did in the second grade," he said.
Photo from the Charlie Vincent family photo album, courtesy of Chris Baer
Standing on ceremony
In earlier years, there was no school band, so the Tisbury town band provided accompaniment. "That band really played - we used to march along, not just walk along - and we always had a teacher right beside us, to make sure we were right in step," said Doris Cleveland, class of 1942. "I see these young people walking down the street, zig-zagging all over, waving to everybody on the side - it's changed," she added with a laugh.
Her son, Herb Ward, followed in her footsteps, participating in his last march as an eighth-grader in 1962. "That particular year they decided they wanted a recitation of the Gettysburg Address, and Tom Hodgson and I memorized it and recited it from memory," he said.
Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Canha
They apparently did better than some of their predecessors. Mr. Tilton recalled from previous ceremonies he attended that, "Usually whoever recited the Gettysburg Address forgot part of it in the middle."
As for the rest of the program, Basil Welch, class of 1942, summed it up by saying, "There was always some so-called important figure to give a very dry, boring speech."
However, Joe Leonard, class of 1949, associates a more positive memory with the marches in which he participated from third to twelfth grade. When the ceremony ended, he said it was a ritual for him and the other boys to run down and jump in the water for their first swim of the season.
While the main elements of the march have remained the same, several former students remarked that the look and style of its participants have not. Shorts and flip-flops have replaced dresses for girls, suits and ties for boys, and Sunday shoes for both.
Despite the change in dress code - or lack thereof - flowers remain the key accessory. From the shy kindergartener clutching a limp dandelion to the sophisticated eighth-grader carrying a fragrant spray of lilacs, almost everyone carries some kind of spring flower to throw into the sea.
"It is a lovely tradition - I can still picture those flowers floating out into the harbor," said Helen Gelotte, class of 1949.
For many, memories of the march are wrapped in the scent of lilacs. "The lilacs always bloomed in time for the kids to take them on the march," Mr. Welch recalled.
Although children were instructed to bring flowers from home, the source of some of the flowers was somewhat suspect. "I remember there would be no lilacs left on the bushes on the way to school - and I think the people that owned them expected it," said Mr. Tilton.
Mr. Welch confessed that he was one of the culprits. "My mother loved flowers, and she had a beautiful garden in Vineyard Haven, but when my brother and I would go to school on the day of the march, we'd pick a couple of lilacs off the neighbor's bush," he said with a laugh.
One of the best aspects of the march, Mr. Tilton said, is that it celebrates the true meaning of Memorial Day, a holiday some think of only as the kick-off to summer. He and many former students said that even as young children, they understood what the march to the sea represented.
"The occasion was to honor all the servicemen, but the emphasis in school was put on the unknown soldier and the unknown sailor," said Mr. Welch. "That's why the flowers were dropped in the sea, to honor those that were buried in unmarked graves or at sea."
As a Tisbury School student from 1952 to 1960, Wendy Andrews said she thought of the ceremony as primarily honoring the lives of sailors lost at sea. "My great-grandfather's ship had been destroyed in World War I by the Germans - he and his crew were saved - that was always in the back of my mind, " she said. "My father was a Marine and was in the American Legion. We took it pretty seriously as kids. In the '50s, I think we had a real sense of what we were doing."
For some, the passage of time has brought new meaning to their memories of the march. Thinking back to his views as a child, Mr. Ward said, "I don't think at that age we really understand what it is we're respecting, in terms of what it means for somebody to give everything they have for their country. Until you're older and have experiences such as losing friends in war, that's when it hits you what that means."
Joe Packer attended Tisbury School from 1967 to 1976, participating in the march like his father Ralph did. As the parent of three children, two who attend Tisbury School, he said he now has a different perspective. "As a child, you sensed you were part of something really big - you knew it was for the soldiers - but I don't think you comprehend that until you're older," he said. "It's an important tradition, and in my mind, there's nothing more fitting than having children who are living in freedom participate in something that honors the sacrifice of people who made it possible for them."