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The Immensity of Sacrifice

We used to have parades in this town, back when we had a band. There are stories of that band and its leader, who was stone-deaf and not a veteran of any war but life itself. With the band, a couple of fire engines, and a string of kids on decorated bicycles, the parade would proceed the short walk into town, an old mill town dotted with ponds and a canal. Young and old stood beside the road and waved little flags and cheered on their neighbors as they marched purposely forward. The proud little battalion strutted around the circular town center, paused to toss a commemorative wreath into the canal, and then continued on to the town cemetery, which is on an island in our pond. But with the old deaf band leader gone, it got harder and harder to create a parade, so the tradition ended. For a number of years we had no observance of Memorial Day in this town. This stirred one of our number, a veteran of the Vietnam War, into action.
He is not a young man, but he is not old. His uniform is worn and a bit faded. He is my neighbor, Rodger Martin. I know him as a teacher and as a keeper of horses. I hardly recognize him, dressed as he is, brimmed hat set square on his head, ribbons on his chest. He stands on the bridge that crosses the canal, and he speaks to us, reminding us first that this bridge, which we cross thoughtlessly many times in a day, was built in the significant year of 1918; and second, that the Bible from which he intends to read was presented to our town’s church in May of 1861, just three weeks after the first shots were fired in the Civil War.
We gather around. Beside him are members of a local VFW post, their uniforms taut against their soft bellies. They carry the flags and the rifles. Also there are two high school students, in their band uniforms. They are both girls and tucked under their arms are their trumpets. Off to the side, Elaina, who runs the restaurant in the next town, stands with her fiddle. Steve, who tends bar for her, has his guitar. And Diane, who lived next door to me for several years, also has her guitar, by which she makes her living. A quotient of townspeople are here. We stand together. This is not a parade. This is a Memorial Day service, a quiet moment in the life of our town’s 981 residents.
Rodger begins: “It is my hope that in these next few minutes, we once again recognize the immensity of the sacrifice of these soldiers who but for the grace of God could be you or I. . . .”
And then come the names. We are a small town, and even inside of our long history there is time today to read the names of all the men who have died in the wars we have fought. Rodger begins with the name Micah Morse, who he tells us died in the service of the Continental Army, shortly after the Battle of Bennington, August 16, 1777. And he continues down the list of the men from the Revolutionary War and then to the Civil War. I recognize some names, for their descendants still live among us. I hear the name Pvt. Levi Willard, who, we are told, was killed in the Second Battle of Bull Run, August 29, 1862. There is a stained-glass window in our church inscribed in his memory, and I have often stared at that name. It was his son, perhaps, who built my barn. I had not known how the man with that righteous name had died.
The service leads us through the wars, all the way to the most recent sacrifice of our town, a young staff sergeant named Richard Robinson, who was killed in action over Iraq, in April of 1994. At certain names, Rodger chokes up and he stops, unable, for a long moment, to continue. At once, I place Rodger on a field of battle. The losses he may have endured come into focus, losses I might otherwise never have supposed, seeing him move about town as we all do, in the business of our unhurried and unthreatened lives.
In between the centuries, Elaina and Steve and Diane lift their fiddle and guitars and give us sad songs. Beribboned black laurel wreaths, which were made for this service by our town clerk and her daughter, are dedicated and prayers are offered, and the men from the VFW Post 799 stand outside the church and fire the blanks in their guns into the air of our quiet, peaceful Sunday morning. The two high school girls (one is the daughter of my physician) bring their trumpets to their young lips and play “Taps,” each note drawn out into the sadness of the end of a day that these girls have yet only to imagine.