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May 26, 2018

Growing up in Louisa – Memorial Day!   

Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn

Granny called it ‘Decoration Day.’

It took some questioning on my part to understand what was special about it. Up until then the word decoration related to me as when mom would be decorating a cake, perhaps for a birthday celebration, or some other occasion. I knew a little about decorating Christmas trees, but this warm, spring day wasn’t near the holidays, so that wasn’t it. I had no choice but to ask my granny what she meant. Granny explained that people decorated the graves of those fallen in wars. She told me that we’d be going to the graveyard later that morning. While we were at the cemetery we would put flowers on those graves. We would also visit and decorate the graves of others. It was to be a time of solemn remembrances of people that had gone on to their reward before us. Frankly, it was still a mystery to me, but I vowed to go along and learn.

 Because I was a ‘young’un’ in grade school, it was to be my first time on Pine Hill. That steep road up the front afforded me many chances to look down on our little town, but it was a sight that brought fear to me. If the driver of the car taking me up that narrow, winding road made one mistake it would make us permanent members of the Pine Hill Society. I preferred to remain above ground for the time being, thank you, so I mostly focused on the floorboard as the car lumbered up the hill. It was a relief when we ‘topped out.’ There before me was the broad, large cemetery used by many of the families about town. Monuments and tombstones were nearly everywhere in sight and some graves already decorated with flowers or miniature American flags.

I learned that old doc Wray, granny’s deceased husband, was buried near the back where now days a road leads to the recently built United Methodist Church. That shiny new building sits on the ridge that connects Pine Hill and Town Hill. I can’t say that this road existed back in the day, but this route to Pine Hill is preferable to me now over that steep climb that was used for so many years.

Once we got out of the car the adults went to see several graves, including grandpa Wray’s. I had not met the man, and had no picture in my mind of this relative. At first, I hung back. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be that close to dead people. I had nightmarish thoughts of an arm reaching out from the grave and grabbing my ankle. I shuttered at the thought of being dragged into the earth never to be seen again. Poor mom would be so upset if her baby was taken so soon.

As the adults lingered, I lost my fears and began to think this might be a grand place to explore. Like any little boy I roamed nearby graves reading the names, dates of births/deaths of the people lying below my feet. “Don’t step on any graves!” my grandmother shouted to me. I wanted to know more so I ran to her as she explained, “It is disrespectful, to step on a grave. Stand off to one side, but never cross over.” Satisfied, I ventured back to a nearby section and carefully continued looking around. I could see other families off in the distance that were bent over and putting flowers next to the headstones. It was then that I noticed that some of the graves seemed to have sunken while others seemed to have mounds. Some were fresh and others seemed to be very old. I ran back to find my family. When I asked, granny carefully explained that in the olden days they didn’t use concrete vaults like they do now. That meant that without the support, the coffin would eventually rot and settle under the pressure of the dirt. Therefore the top layers would sink down around the corpse. Granny was careful to tell me the truth but she avoided inciting panic, which is what would have happened if she had she told me any of the stories of stepping on a grave and the foot breaking through the weakened coffin below. The horror of coming in contact with the remains of the dearly departed below would not have been something I could have handled at my young age. Ugh! Of course, later I heard about those things around campfires, or in whispers at school. No wonder it was bad to step on graves!

After being allowed to roam freely I was now equipped with knowledge of acceptable graveyard behaviors. As is normal with youth, I finally tired and wondered if we would ever be ready to leave. It was time to start pulling on the skirts and crying in hopes of encouraging our departure. I really didn’t want to spend the whole day on Pine Hill.

 On the trip back down the hill, granny also told me about some of the men who had died in defense of our country. It was they who made our lives as free Americans possible. For the first half of the day the flag should be at half-mast, then at noon raised to full staff.

This was a time when we were barely out of a World War, and where ‘police actions’ were underway in Korea. Many of the men in the community had served during WWII, and some older ones I had met had served in the First World War. One had served in the Spanish American war, but he was an old codger. As a ‘war’ baby, I was used to seeing olive drab jeeps, trucks, and even trains. I had seen some of the souvenirs that were commonly displayed in some of the homes I visited during those days. Some of our teachers would not only teach the history lessons of the American Revolution, but also lessons about a number of the foreign wars that followed.

During these days the Garden Theater showed war movies and never failed to have a newsreel depicting the latest news relating to the theaters of war. Many of these were filmed by the War Department, later called the Department of Defense. I learned how men risked and sometimes gave their lives for the flag, or to protect others. I learned about soldiers, sailors, and marines and their devotion to the country and to those of us too young to do our part. With this upbringing, I had no hesitation to join up when it was my time.

I still rise at the playing of the National Anthem, or the passing of Old Glory. I cannot help the tears that leak out when I hear the Star-Spangled Banner. My chest swells with pride. I have tried to teach this to my children, too. I have trouble understanding while some don’t in protest. Those people are confused. It is America that allows protests and demonstrations, so America isn’t the enemy. Wrongs may have been and may continue to happen, but it isn’t our native country that is wrong. Speaking out against wrong is fine, but remember it’s those who died that made your protest possible.

Regardless of politics, or the things that separate us in our thinking, we are still Americans and have every right to stand tall and proud. We have an obligation to those we remember this day, who gave what they had for us. I have no doubt this is the greatest nation in the world. It isn’t just the balances of freedom, but the fact we are free at all. We can call out wrong-doing, but we can celebrate that which is right. In this we have hope for tomorrow and can have the determination to see the next generation has a chance to enjoy the benefits of freedom.

Today, Decoration Day has become Memorial Day, the kickoff of summer. Theme parks open to summer hours, the pool covers are removed, and shorts are worn in the warming sunshine. Instead of visiting Pine Hill and other cemeteries about, we see folks taking vacations, making trips to see friends. We attend or participate in ballgames, tournaments, fishing, boating, swimming, and other kinds of play because this is, after all, summer’s first holiday. Those of us who live on the coast are reminded that hurricane season is also around the corner.

 A few will still remember those on Pine Hill and other cemeteries scattered about our country, but most do not. With luck, an American Legion honor guard will be at the stadium. For a moment those in the stands will remember. A wreath will be placed in Arlington and the guards will continue to honor our fallen military men and women. Other national cemeteries will be decorated with miniature flags. Those who recently lost a brother, sister, spouse, or parent will remember, but we all owe a debt. While we’re at it, we could show some support to the hurting families who paid the price.

Decoration Day that was originally meant to honor Civil War soldiers, is today Memorial Day when we are supposed to remember all those who died and those who are yet dying for this nation. May we pause in our summer celebrations and give thanks for the sacrifices not only for those who died, but those who survived and came home. It is politically correct to honor our armed forces, so go ahead, honor them.   This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

  

Comments  

0 #1 Bernard Nelson 2018-05-30 15:22
Great article Mike, brings back a lot of memories of my relatives & friends that have gone on before us. There is nothing more honorable that to remember our loved ones and decorate their graves on Memorial day.
I consider it such an honor to remember our fallen hero's. Thanks for the memories, dear friend.
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