A Salute for the Old Soldier
CHANGING the holidays to pleasurable Mondays is all right with me, except for Decoration Day. On the 30th of May it should forever be, and I'm speaking from the frostbound State of Maine where May 30th is seldom salubrious. Geraniums so green and red in the greenhouse are blue in the cemetery on the 31st. I speak, also, from the point of view of the Old Soldier, who was my grandfather. First observed in 1868, Memorial Day had to do with his war, and he would never have allowed any monkeying around with the date. It was, in a way, his only holiday, for I knew him to mow hay on the Fourth of July and to go for a sled load of firewood on Christmas.
On Decoration Day he chored up, but nothing more. Grandfather had returned from that foolish war a battered and embattled youngster who was already an old man at 22. He was in the few survivors of a regiment that nigh didn't come home at all. He called it Decoration Day because decorating the graves of fallen comrades was the purpose.
Until the last of Grandfather's comrades was too feeble, so that he walked alone, he turned out; then the American Legion boys took over and for three years he rode in an automobile, the last of our local G.A.R.
The geranium aforesaid was the favorite flower for cemetery use, and in the days when the ``boys'' were still stepping smartly each comrade would have two and three in hand. The band would play a march, and the boys would step along until each was in place by the grave of a fallen comrade - so every veteran's plot in the yard could be given attention at almost the same time.
When the music stopped there was a prayer, and then each potted geranium was put in place. There might be taps, and there might be a musket volley, but with a quick march the band would bring the boys back for the parade, and off things would go to the next cemetery.
I was there a number of times, but Grandfather's comrades had become fewer and Grandfather's legs had lost their long strides of the campaigns. There was the year the Boy Scouts put the geraniums around in the morning and the four remaining comrades stayed by the band.
When the morning parade was over and the decorating was accomplished, the exercises followed. A hayrack covered with bunting made a platform, and the speaker was always a politician of some decree - just before the World War he would be Daniel J. McGillicuddy, M.C.
Grandfather detested him because he was a scalawag Democrat, but paid patriotic attention to every word as ``Danny Mac'' extolled Liberty and the Union and the Flag, and Free Trade, not necessarily in that order. Such speakers usually repeated the Gettysburg Address, and very often the Ship of State by Longfellow. Up in northern Maine most constituents supposed that Congressman Frank Fellows wrote the thing. All was stirring.
The Women's Relief Corps, known as ``The Corps,'' was auxiliary to the Grand Army of the Republic, and ``put on'' the big Decoration Day dinner at noon. So after the speeches everybody went into the G.A.R. hall for baked beans, cold ham, hot yeast rolls, pie, and other pleasures too numerous to mention.
The speaker-of-the-day had usually hurried along to make more speeches in more towns, particularly if he were up for reelection this year, but there would be a school-board member or a minister to handle the necessary elocution at table. Things concluded, generally, with the motion to ``extend a vote of thanks to the ladies of The Corps for preparing such a bounteous repast.''
G.A.R veterans ate for free, and at Grandfather's hand so did I, but the general public was touched for 25 cents apiece. These dinners were supposed to ``break even.'' Since Grandfather at that time lived alone and did his own cooking except when I came to take over, a noontime meal like that was a big treat.
The comrades visited together after the meal, and in the shank of the afternoon we'd walk up to the school playground and retrieve Beulah, tied to a tree with a bag of hay since morning. Beulah took us home, and it had been a big day.
Grandfather carefully laid away his Grand Army uniform and his campaign hat, pulling up his overalls for the evening barn chores, and I would fix something light for supper, in deference to that whopping noon meal.
It was always May 30th, and it always should be May 30th. Outboard motors notwithstanding.