Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Memorial Day Service, Monday, May 30th, 2011

Photo by Debby Preiser.

My husband John and I have occasionally had the honor of singing in Oak Park’s Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day services which are always held in Scoville Park. The focal point and “stage” for these events is always the “Peace Triumphant” sculpture that was built to honor the 2,446 Oak Park and River Forest citizens who participated in “The Great War.” Dedicated on Armistice Day, November 11, 1925, the memorial recently underwent a refurbishing and was re-dedicated in a ceremony last November.

On this past Memorial Day, we were honored to sing beside the war memorial for the first time since its refurbishing and we had a wonderful time, and not just because the statutes had been restored to their former bronzed glory. Something special happened during this service, something so momentous and moving that I feel compelled to attempt to explain the inexplicable.

It might have something to do with Ginny Cassin, who opened the ceremonies. Ginny is an octogenarian who has been significantly involved with Oak Park’s government and the local Ernest Hemingway Foundation for decades. She’s the type of person who honestly esteems everyone she meets and, in some magical way, when she opens any ceremony, she immediately imbues it with a higher amount of value than it would have had otherwise.

Or perhaps it was Redd Griffin’s speech, which, as usual, was erudite and substantive. This time, during his history of Memorial Day (initially called Decoration Day, utilized to “decorate” the graves of those lost in the Civil War) he used the street running in front of the park – Lake Street – to make a connection with the 151st anniversary of Lincoln’s 1860 Republican nomination, which took place a few miles directly east from where we were standing. He also movingly and clearly stated the difference between a twisted fascination for war and an admiration for those willing to face it.

Perhaps the event was extra meaningful in part because of the songs we were asked to sing. John and I are already familiar with the spontaneous audience participation that tends to accompany a performance of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” (when we perform our “Songs of the Civil War” program). This audience had pre-printed words in front of them but still, I always wonder what it is about this song that is so particularly moving. Perhaps it’s what John always says in his intro: after the Civil War was over, Americans wanted to believe that the immense cost had served some higher purpose; that something new had been born from a conflict which had taken so many lives. While singing “Battle Hymn” one can nearly catch a glimpse of that higher purpose.

I love singing the national anthem, always have, probably always will, so was thrilled to have another opportunity to do so at the Memorial Service on Monday, feeling, as I always do, nearly akin to Paul Henreid in Rick’s Café, leading a group of French patriots in a passionate rendition of their forbidden national song. Alright, that’s a little over the top, but it comes close, cinematically-speaking, to describing the thrill I feel whenever I lead the singing for “The Star Spangled Banner.” While doing so I can nearly see the poet Francis Scott Key yearning for a glimpse of Old Glory and all that it represents: a near-miraculous and idealistic attempt to create a new nation, which ended up racking up a long list of wrongs – because human beings tend to be flawed – but also became a beacon of light and hope to oppressed people around the world. When I get to the part where the singer asks if the banner yet waves, I really mean it. If it does continue – and the reason it currently waves – is because of the vets who have been willing to fight for it.

The invocation given by Pastor Schreiner was the best Memorial Day prayer I’ve ever heard, one that pointedly focused on the reason for the day: the sacrifices that young men and women have made for this country. She not only mentioned those who had lost their lives in direct conflict with the enemy but also vets who have been permanently damaged by their war experiences, including those who took their own lives as a result. Words rarely suffice to fully articulate the loss of a single life but she came very close and in a very short amount of time.

Perhaps the show of hands made this Memorial Day service particularly moving. It hadn’t been entirely clear how many vets were present until Oak Park president David Pope asked them to identify themselves and the conflict they’d been part of. As far as I could hear, veterans from Viet Nam, Korea, and WWII were all present and from our vantage point at the base of the memorial, John and I could see them all.

One of them – a Viet Nam vet, I think – came up to us afterwards and told us this had been his favorite among many Memorial Day services because of our singing, so much so that he was sure there was a special place in heaven for us. I couldn’t help thinking the same thing about him. Thank you, veterans of the United States.

The history of Memorial Day.

An article from December, 1925, regarding the original “Peace Triumphant” memorial.

Ginny Cassin, speaking at the rededication ceremony of the “Peace Triumphant” memorial, November, 2010.

Redd Griffin, speaking at the rededication ceremony of the “Peace Triumphant” memorial, November, 2010.

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