“The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.”
So reads the proclamation that enacted the first Decoration Day, as what we now know as Memorial Day was known at first. To many people, the holiday has become a far cry from a “testimonial” of respect. Today, it’s widely celebrated as the beginning of summer, featuring beer, sunblock, and maybe a ball game.
To our relatives, friends, and neighbors who served in the military, particularly during wartime, it’s a serious, even somber, holiday — a time to remember those who didn’t come back from wars fought far from home.
“Memorial Day is kind of an emotional thing for me and I’m sure for all other veterans,” said Gene DeFelice, 90, of Oak Bluffs. “This is when you remember way back when men were killed and so forth, and it brings back memories. So I always want to get out there and pay my respects to the boys.”
Mr. DeFelice was in the Marines during World War II. “I served on Guadalcanal. I was just a 19-year-old kid at the time,” he said. “I served four years and then I went to civilian life, and then I got called back for the Korean War. I finally got out in 1953.”
Richard Monaco, 47, of Oak Bluffs served two tours in Iraq. Wounded in 2008, he received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for actions in combat.
“Memorial Day to me is really a special occasion for me to think of my own guys — guys I worked with, guys I left behind,” Mr. Monaco said in a telephone conversation early this week. “I lost two of my own guys in Iraq, in my squad, killed in action by insurgents.”
Ed Colligan, current commander of American Legion Post #257 in Vineyard Haven was in the Coast Guard during the Korean War. “I’ve been in the Legion for 52 years, now, commander for the last five,” he said. “Memorial Day is a very emotional day for me: there are a lot of memories of the old-time World War II guys who are gone now.”
Al Noyes, former commander of Legion Post #186 in Edgartown served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War. “We used to rotate it off,” he said of the Memorial Day parade. “But then we decided that Vineyard Haven would do Memorial Day, Edgartown does the 4th of July, and Oak Bluffs does Veterans Day.
“Memorial Day is one that people should really consider. A lot of people celebrate the 4th of July, but this is for our fallen soldiers and comrades. I think it’s something we should celebrate forever. I would love to see the parents teach their children what it’s all about.”
Fred Thifault, a former Tisbury selectman and commander of the Vineyard Haven Legion, served in the Navy during World War II and in the Army in Korea. “I look forward to Memorial Day and the parade,” he said. “It’s very touching for me.
“But World War II veterans are few and far between now. We’re concerned about the Legion: we don’t have any new people coming into it. The younger vets from other wars are not participating in the Legion.”
Mr. Thifault is not the only one who has noticed the change. “There’s a lot more to do than there used to be,” Mr. Noyes said. “I mean after World War II, it was a night out, you know, where now there’s so much going on. I don’t think you see as much participation in a lot of the patriotic stuff as there used to be.”
When asked about changes in Memorial Day on the Island, Stan Mercer of Chilmark first said he didn’t think there had been much change. “When I was a kid growing up in Edgartown we always had a parade on Memorial Day itself,” Mr. Mercer said. “We all marched from the school to the memorial on the corner of Pease’s Point Way and Main Street, where some wreaths were laid by the veterans, and then we went on down to the wharf and threw flowers into the water. Then we went to the cemetery for the playing of taps and the gun fire.”
Mr. Mercer of Chilmark spent 20 years in the Air Force. “I went in during the Korean War as an enlisted man and I finished as a major during Vietnam,” he said.
“There’s one big change from when I was a kid to nowadays, and that’s the lack of respect that spectators show toward the American flag — whether at a football game during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner or when the flag is passing in a parade,” Mr. Mercer said. “It’s very upsetting to me.”
As for the parade itself, the route has changed, as has the average age of the participants. “It’s a small parade, pretty gathered together.” Mr. Colligan said. “Years ago, we had the drum and bugle corps once, too, and we marched down Main Street and over to the Veterans Park and back up to the hall again. That’s quite a walk. Now we try to keep it as short as we can, because the veterans are getting much older.”
“The parade will step off at 9:30 from the American Legion on Martin Road,” said Joanne Murphy, the Veterans Agent for Dukes County. “We go from the Legion to Pine Tree Road out to State Road briefly and into the cemetery where the ceremony will be right there at the Avenue of Flags.
“And then we’ll double back to the entrance right across from the school playground where there’s a Civil War memorial right inside. And we’ll lay a wreath right there. And then we’ll go back to the Legion.”
But before anyone starts marching, there’s another duty that to some people is as moving as the parade itself. At 7:30 veterans and anyone who wants to help will put up 425 American flags on eight-foot staffs along the roads in the cemetery.
“Each flag represents a veteran, living or deceased, in the cemetery,” Mr. Colligan said. “It’s emotional putting those up too, with the kids and the grandparents and everybody else helping. It’s a nice feeling putting them up.” The flags are taken down at 3 pm, when help is also appreciated.
Smaller flags are placed by the grave of every veteran in advance of Memorial Day. “It’s a state law that every veterans’ grave will be decorated with a new flag on Memorial Day, every year,” Ms. Murphy said.
There’s that word again — decorated — 143 years after it was first used to describe the protocol for a day of remembrance for fallen soldiers.