As another “Veterans Day” rolls around, I find myself with a thousand things I would wish to say but only a few hundred words with which to say them. I think my parents pinned the first red poppy to my Sunday-go-to-meeting shirt at the age of four, and I know now that the white-bearded men riding in open Pierce Arrow touring cars at my first parade were veterans of the American Civil War – President Lincoln’s war.
This day we observe each year on November 11th we once called Armistice Day, originating as it did to mark the “official end” of World War I –“The Great War”, in 1918. I have long thought that The U.K. and Canada went one better: they still know it as “Remembrance Day”, because to me that is what it should be all about. They have an old and honored folk song with a line that reads “Called away by a waking dream, brave old soldier running out of steam”. . . “Heading home on Remembrance Day.” I am lucky enough to own a version sung by Roger Whittaker I often replay at times like this.
I also watch my way through three hours of “Saving Private Ryan” in a corner chair where I can hide my tears – not without realizing it is merely a well-done piece of fiction, but because it serves as a reminder of a loved piece of scripture which tells us “greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for a friend.”
I believe that the word “remember” is an active verb. My Heritage Dictionary says it means “to recall to the mind through an act of effort and determination”. I don’t just remember cradling Johhny Allen in my arms on the way to a MASH unit where I saw more love being practiced than anywhere else in my life, but I try to remember what others have experienced on fields of honor in all our nation’s conflicts around the world, and I feel a profound connection with every veteran who similarly raised one arm to the square and pledged to keep a promise, and guaranteed to do so even if it required their life. That pretty much fills my definition of the word honor.
Thanks to the be-lettered baseball caps many of us grizzled Vets wear nowadays, hardly a week goes by that I don’t stop to share handshakes, words of endearment and even hugs with total strangers who – as an old Civil War expression of respect says – “have seen the elephant”. I am also enough of a sentimentalist that each June 6th I dress with my father’s WW I “dog tag” around my neck with its engraved letters “Auburn F. Cooper - USMC - May 1917”, and I sometimes proudly lift from a box the separation document which confirms in stilted, official words that he was “wounded on the field of battle while in the presence of the enemy”.
At the urging of my extended family, I have given in to a long-time urge to don once again the uniform which was for several years my daily attire. Except for very special occasions it just hangs in my closet, but I often find myself opening the door just to look at it, hanging there, staring back at me and reminding me of who I have been and who I still am, heading home on Remembrance Day.
Caption of Title Photo:
Hallowed ground. The flags of every branch of the service flap in the breeze at the entrance to a Veterans’ cemetery on a Vermont hilltop where the family names of many I went to school, grew up and served with linger. Whenever possible, I visit there, filled with a sense of peacefulness, pride and thanksgiving. The beautiful site was donated and the cemetery made a reality by the good people of the grateful community.
My friend Ed Coles fought his way across Nazi-occupied Europe as a foot soldier in the76th Infantry Division, believing he would never see Brooklyn, U.S.A. again. When he buried his beloved wife in the Veterans’ cemetery, he wished to express his deeply-felt sense of appreciation with the simple words IT’S GOOD TO BE HOME!
Staff Sergeant Arthur Fish served as a waist gunner in a B-24 Liberator bomber in the 458th Bomb Group of the U.S. 8th Air Force flying out of Horsham St. Faith, England, surviving more than 25 missions to places like Frankfurt, Hanover & Berlin.
Note: Al Cooper, whose weekly column appears in NEIGHBORHOODS, is often asked to speak to school children about his collection of historic U.S. flags and the stories behind them. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org