Tuesday, May 28, 2013

At Mount Olivet's Doughboy

That's me, just to the left of center (go figure!), in a light blue t-shirt, looking up to a nearby bridge,
where some Boy Scouts are preparing to toss a ceremonial wreath into the Trinity River
while a bagpiper plays.  This was during the maritime portion of yesterday's Memorial Day observance.


It gets shorter every year.

My friends and I guesstimate that we've been attending Fort Worth's annual Memorial Day observance at Mount Olivet Cemetery for fifteen years.  For 8 decades, Mount Olivet has hosted a traditional, no-frills commemoration of military servicemembers killed in the line of duty.  It's become the official Memorial Day event for both the city of Fort Worth and Tarrant County, usually attended by mayors, city councilmembers, county commissioners, and other local dignitaries. 

But unlike some ceremonies, this one has been getting shorter every year.

They've thrown in an extra speech - a speech to introduce the person who's giving the main speech.  This year, they added the sanctuary choir from one of the oldest congregations in Tarrant County, the politically and theologically liberal First Christian Church in downtown Fort Worth.  About 40 people dressed in red and black sang the National Anthem, the Battle Hymn of the Republic, and a choral benediction.  They sounded quite good, considering they had no amplification and it was a breezy evening.

Maybe the singing helped the service seem to fly by.  But, then again...

It's never been a pretentious affair.  An executive from a local veterans association runs the show, which includes proclamations from the city and county thanking the private cemetery for underwriting the evening.  Interspersed are some military flourishes, such as a Presentation of the Colors, the playing of "Taps," a 21-gun salute by handicapped veterans in wheelchairs, and the solemn Retiring of the Colors, during which we in the audience stand in utter silence.  It's very cool hearing how respectful, dignified, and patient people can be when they want to be.

There's also usually a bagpiper from the Fort Worth Fire Department who bleats out "Amazing Grace" while marching in full regalia along rows of big American flags.

One year, the soldiers got it wrong while folding up the Stars and Stripes during the Retiring of the Colors.  They didn't have enough of the flag left over to tuck inside and create the appropriately-stiff triangle of star-spangled hallowedness.  So, instead of fudging it, they slowly and methodically unwrapped what they'd done, and started folding it again.  The whole thing must have taken ten minutes, and that's a long time when all you're doing is watching two young men fold up a piece of cloth.  But we all waited, quietly, almost religiously, to make sure it was done properly.  Veterans in attendance kept their sharp salutes the whole time, and in the stifling May heat we usually have for these ceremonies, that's no small feat.

One year, it had been raining all day, and it was drizzling as we gathered at the cemetery for the ceremony, so officials moved it indoors to one of the chapels.  I remember that the air conditioning was turned down so low that I was actually freezing - the only time I've been cold during these Memorial Day services!  I think they made the bagpiper play in another room down the hall; the low-ceilinged chapel being too small for the sound.

Yes, we could all fit into a funeral home's chapel back then.  When my friends and I started attending, the crowds were definitely small, which was one of the reasons we decided to keep attending.  The theology is thin to non-existent at these services, which are designed to be ecumenical.  And most of the speeches are by either politicians or commanders at one of our local military installations, so their quality is decidedly hollow.  But we've felt a certain obligation to make this yearly service a part of our Memorial Day Mondays, not out of a punitive sense of compulsion, but as a necessary reminder of the fact that real people have fought in real wars and died real deaths for our country.

No, we don't all agree on the merits of certain political causes, or the decisions our elected officials have made regarding warfare and picking fights with other nations, but the fact remains that our military consists of men and women who willingly - and often enthusiastically - agree to put their life on the line for the honor of our country and the freedom for which it stands.  Surely there's some sort of gratitude we're to demonstrate for such self-sacrifice?  Before being executed by the British, colonist Nathan Hale reportedly proclaimed his regret that he had "only one life to give for my country."   Even being willing to give that one life, and managing to escape armed conflict to retire from the service, never having to make good on that pledge, as most servicemembers are able to do, is worth more than many lesser Americans pledge for the lifestyle we so often take for granted.

After the main speech every year, representatives from area veterans groups line up and place ceremonial wreaths at the "Doughboy Statue," Mount Olivet's version of the "Tomb of the Unknowns."  Lest you've forgotten, the term "doughboy" comes from the Mexican-American War in which soldiers would get covered in colorless dust, and ate flavorless dough as part of their rations.  "Doughboy" became particularly popular as an affectionate reference for American soldiers during World War I.  At Fort Worth's Mount Olivet Cemetery, the "Doughboy Statue," dedicated in the 1980's, helps to anchor a section were many veterans are buried.

The number of veterans groups that participated in this part of the service used to be considerable, and the time it took for everybody to present their wreaths and observe a moment of silence could stretch for what seemed like hours, even though it was probably twenty minutes or so.  Yesterday, they were finished in less than five.  Veterans still march towards the statue in their dress uniforms, their spouses wearing outfits in patriotic colors; a few military widows and mothers, some white-haired, all of them usually dressed to the nines; many of them escorted by members of the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic fraternity of men who wear black tuxedos, sashes, and tall hats with plumes of feathers, holding long silver swords at attention.  Solemn and silent, they walk down, and their line tends to bunch up near the Doughboy as the ones in front of them linger a bit too long in their salutes.

Only there are far fewer of them than there used to be.

For a while, it seemed as though ever year, we could notice who wasn't there.  Particularly the older men, who would shuffle with a peculiar gait, or whose comb-over was exceptionally pronounced.  There was a Japanese woman who was a member of a Japanese wives auxiliary, but when she died, apparently so did that auxiliary.  And that's been the pattern over the past fifteen years we've been attending.

There's still one tall, elegant gentleman, always in a black suit and crisp white shirt, with a tie, no matter the heat or humidity.  His full head of thick white hair blows about whenever there's a breeze, and he never sits - he's constantly wandering the periphery of the event, tiny camera in hand, taking photos of everything and everybody.  Teetering about on long, thin legs that seem about to give out on him, but still, he makes his circuit, around and around, never even flinching during the ear-popping 21-gun salute.

Each year, although we have no idea who he is, my friends and I hope to see him, knowing that one of these years, we won't.

Afterwards, on the drive home last night, my friends and I joked about maybe having to form our own auxiliary and signing-up to present our own wreath during the Doughboy part of the ceremony.  My friends were dating when we started attending these, and now they have two elementary-school-aged kids they bring along for a lesson in patriotism.  Apparently, newer generations of GI's don't join veterans groups when they leave the service, and considering the rowdy, beer-swilling, vulgarity-laced reputation many of these VFW halls have had for decades, that's likely not a bad thing.  And since the invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11, the attendance at Mount Olivet has been climbing almost every year.  There were probably three hundred or so people in attendance yesterday, which my friends and I thought looked like the largest crowd yet.

But somebody's still gotta lay down the wreaths, right?

In remembrance of those who've laid down their lives for our country.

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