A Catskill Catalog: May 28, 2008
When I was growing up in suburbia, Memorial Day was the first day of summer, the day the local pools opened, the day my job at the beach club started. Oh, we watched the President at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on TV, but mostly Memorial Day was hotdogs and hamburgers for the first time outside this season.
Moving to the mountains introduced me to Memorial Day.
Here, the holiday was crepe-poppies in lapels, folks putting-out little flags on the graves of veterans, an entire community coming together for a parade and a speech in front of the Legion Hall, followed by free ice cream and busy taverns. Memorial Day mattered.
In the early ’70s people on both sides of the national debate over the Vietnam War listened intently to the Memorial Day speaker – generally a clergyperson – for hints to his or her true attitude toward the war. No one that I remember ever got too political, but some fairly intense political debates could arise out of somebody’s interpretation of what the reverend seemed to say.
Memorial Day has small town roots. In 1966, President Lyndon Baines Johnson ended a longtime contest for the title among competing claimants by declaring Waterloo, New York “The Birthplace of Memorial Day.” That Finger Lakes village was home to Henry Welles, a small-town pharmacist who suggested at a social gathering that the decoration of graves would be a good way to honor the many young men of the village killed in the Civil War. The idea took off, and Decoration Day, as it was then known, began to spread as a springtime ritual.
It was set on May 30 in 1868 by order of John A. Logan, first national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, the brotherhood of Union Veterans that was a powerful force in American life for half a century. In 1873, New York became the first state to make Decoration Day an official state holiday, one that was only observed in the north. After World War I, Memorial Day was extended to honor Americans who died in every war, not just the Civil War, and in 1971 was moved to the last Monday in May to insure a three-day weekend.
A few Memorial Days back, Mr. Kasanof of Halcott Center was honored as the last World War I veteran in our area. He was, I believe, 100 years old at the time. I hate to think of the Memorial Day to come when our towns will honor their last World War II vet.
That group is famously tight-lipped about their experiences in the war. Growing up, there were around us a lot of war veterans and few war stories. It seemed they wanted to forget. As one recently told me, his eyes glistening, “Those guys went through so much.” My informant spent the war sweeping for mines in Europe himself, but his near-tears are for “those guys, who had it a lot worse than me.” Typically, my WW II veteran friend does not want his name used.
“This place lost so many for such a little town,” he told me, referring to the handful of villages and hamlets at the head of the East Branch that mean home to him. “At least eight guys died.”
Imagine. We are all pained when we read of the death in Iraq of the kid from Highland, or from across the river. Imagine eight dead soldiers, sailors, airmen. and marines from among the kids who were just in your high school and the high schools you play in sports.
When you get a chance, visit the Margaretville American Legion Hall to see the wonderful wall of photographs of the men and women of World War II. Play bingo one night just to get in. The wall is worth a visit.
Marian Connell had been teaching math, general science, chemistry, and biology at Margaretville High School for seven years or so when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. A photography enthusiast, she resolved to photograph every local man and woman who went off to war. The results are staggering. The photographs extend down the entire sidewall of the Legion Hall – so many pictures! One truly understands the scope of the mobilization for war that was World War II when one sees just how many young people went off to war. A whole generation!
When I taught European History to 10th-graders a few years, I had the kids do a project called “Margaretville in World War II.’” Each student would find a person to interview who lived through the war: might be a vet or somebody on the home front. It was fascinating to learn that Fleischmanns High School canceled its prom for the duration. The problem: no boys.
Miss Connell, still living in our community, was a legendary teacher when I was her colleague. She taught for 42 years. My World War II veteran friend graduated from high school in the late ’30s, but he still gets excited when describing her classroom. “Miss Connell made you feel like you were part of something!” he exclaimed. About the best compliment a teacher can get.