Observe not celebrate

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I’m not a flag-waver.

I believe in the spirit of mankind to do extraordinary things. I also understand that this spirit goes mostly untested and, at times, is buried under the weight of the corruption of thought and action at all levels of society. And even many flag-wavers are, in fact, using their patriotism more for their love of self than true love of country.

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On Memorial Day, you can see quite a range of energies devoted to quite a number of different things, mostly a day off work that leads to family and friends getting together to enjoy the unofficial start to summer. Some spend their day watching their kids and grandkids playing ball. The PIAA has seemed to adopt Memorial Day as the day for the District 10 championships, forcing many families with veterans to choose between watching their kids or grandkids play or join their fellow veterans in taking part in one of the least attended of all the Memorial Day activities, the honoring of the lost men and women.

Not flag-wavers.

Believers!

Believers in this country built on the blood , sweat and tears of those before and will likely continue on the blood, sweat and tears of those in the future.

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On Monday at 9 a.m., I attended a ceremony at the 13th Street bridge in Franklin. Not counting the honor guard or the VFW Auxiliary or even those of us reporting on the event, there were maybe 6 to 10 people there. If I were to ask them, they likely would’ve said they were sons or daughters of someone in the auxiliary or the Honor Guard.

It is really quite a beautiful little service in which auxiliary members toss a dozen red, white and blue carnations off the bridge and into the rushing stream below. This ceremony gives weight to the letting go of the lost, gives to nature the beauty of a life remembered in hopes that somehow the universe, not just human beings, remembers.

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It was followed by the usual 21-gun salute, and taps played lonely as several cars went by on the other side of the bridge, some with windows down, some with music playing or commercial breaks. The V.E.T.S. Honor Guard stood silently at attention.

Most of them, gray-haired in full uniform and carrying a rifle or a flag. All marched in formation from around the block, stopped on the bridge, stood at attention for the roughly 15-minute ceremony and then marched back. Most of them with children and grandchildren, obviously younger and more fit to do what they were doing, but there they were, doing it themselves because no one else would commit to do it.

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I’m not judging, we all remember in different ways. I admit, if it weren’t for my job as an observer and reporter of what I see, I likely would not have been there on that bridge at 9 a.m., and I would have been taking advantage of  my free day off from work for the holiday. I was not in the service and my family was not a joiner of groups. My dad served in the Korean War and seldom talked about it. I know he was a surveyor and I know on leave he saw Mt. Fuji in Japan. It wasn’t until a few years back that I learned he ever carried a gun. I could never picture my dad with gun. He never to my knowledge joined the VFW or American Legion.

After the ceremony on the bridge the group, made its way up to a cemetery to lay a wreath on a monument and conduct a similar ceremony. It seemed even fewer people attended this.

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As I was leaving I noticed a woman with a child approaching the monument and what really looked like teaching going on. Taking the young man by the hand the woman pointed and told of the history and took him up close to show. This was a grandmother with a grandson, and for the last four years they have attended the ceremony together and then would visit the youngster’s great-grandparents’ grave just up the hill. I should have asked, but didn’t, I’m assuming great-grand parents he never met.

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The woman, Debbie Walters, and her husband, Scott, said Kellan Shetler was just 2 years old when they first took him to the cemetery. They just happened to stumble on the Memorial Day service they said they didn’t know was going on. Since then, every year, they make it a point to attend. They then take a few moments to add some lessons and meaning of the day for their grandson.

Scott and I talked a little after I took these pictures and admitted that even when we were young we didn’t understand the significance of this this day or the observances taking place.

As we get older we begin to appreciate the weight of memory, the cost of not having people we love with us any longer and the immense gratitude for those we still do have. We both laughed as we realized how much we learn as we age.

I think we both acknowledged, in that moment we spoke with each other, all the times we’ve said the “kids these days” phrase, that we were once “these kids” and in many ways not really that much different.

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Without question, the most well-attended events of the Memorial Day observances are the parades. When there is a ceremony after the parade, many stick around to attend, but many also pack their lawn chairs and go home or out to eat. In Franklin, after the parade by the members of the Honor Guard, who probably average in age in their 70s, and who had just taken part in two services earlier, a third service was held. At this ceremony well more than 100 people attended as they made there way into the park from the parade.

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I had to leave the parade in Franklin in order to get to Oil City for that community’s ceremony. A smaller affair with no parade. A few dozen people attended, including 92 year old Albert J. Mertz. He was an aviation ordnance specialist on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific during World War II. He mentioned taking part in the battles at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, two of the famed and most deadly battles of the war.

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There was also Ed Hook, who at Monday’s observance wore the same uniform he wore nearly 60 years ago. Many of the old vets joked they couldn’t get one leg into their old uniform. Hook said he served in the military from 1958-59.

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American Legion Commander John McCauley walks with a cane. But, there he was standing the entire time of the service. When it was his time to read names, he made his way to the podium, up a couple of stairs and across some uneven ground. He also laid a wreath at the monument in the square.

I didn’t get to ask him about his service or his age, but thought about how this man using a cane never sat down during the nearly hourlong observance.

As I walked around thinking about how there are tens of thousands of people who live in the area and here, these old soldiers are surrounded by maybe 100, many of whom are family members or in the band that were there to play. I thought… for what does this man stand here for? His legs must hurt. He’s not a young man. What about his back, mine was hurting and I was able to walk around a lot more.

But there he was, standing there tall and proud even though the majority of Americans seemingly don’t care enough to attend the observances around them.

If I were to have asked him, or any of the vets for that matter why they stood there and read the names of those they have lost,  I’m sure they would have pointed to those names on the monuments and on the pieces of paper and say “for them.” And they would have said they do it for themselves and for their country, knowing in their deepest beliefs that it is in never forgetting that we can grow to be greater than we are.

That those names on the monuments and on that paper are not just names, but they are real human beings.

That they are us.

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As I heard name after name, I realized I was drifting in and out of paying attention myself. Not really knowing any of the names to be able to picture a face, it was harder to feel the weight.

I’m sure I would recognize a few names  from covering something in the community. But none were sticking out, and I’m sure I didn’t even really hear them all. There were well more than 100.

Then I heard the name of a friend’s dad, David Motter. His face came into my memory and I realized very strongly at that moment each of those names read have photographs and memories in the thoughts of people just like me. My dear friend’s dad is someone who is deeply in the thoughts of his entire family. Many of those names read Monday were.  And that is why people like Mr McCauley stand an entire hour, to give honor and tribute and thanks.

About the Author

Richard Sayer
Staff photographer at the Derrick and News-Herarld newspapers in North Western Pennsylvania.