It is 46 degrees, with a brisk east wind and misty as a dozen veterans gather inside American Legion Post 33 on North Haven, Maine, an island 12 miles offshore and proud of its history of sending young men and women to fight for their country. It is a curious thing – this island often seems independent of the continental United States, yet in every war, starting with the Revolutionary, the islanders responded to the call for service to defend freedom, democracy and our way of life.
The townsfolk gather every Memorial Day to honor the service of those who went and came back, and those who didn’t come back. North Haven may be among the smallest towns in America to have a Memorial Day parade. Population 350, give or take, depending who has given birth and who was reluctantly moved to the mainland into assisted living, the winter residents and those early-arriving summer residents start arriving on Main Street at 9am for the 9:30 ceremony, many with well-behaved dogs in tow.
The flags over the Legion Hall and Post Office are at half-mast. The Post Office posts a list of the addresses of islanders on active duty abroad so that we can write to them and send packages.
On a normal sunny, temperate Maine Memorial Day, the veterans will gather on the street in front of the Legion Hall, but today even these hardy Mainers are huddling out of the wind inside the unheated, uninsulated Legion Hall. The younger veterans, and a few more senior ones, are in uniforms that still fit – some in camouflage and two in Marine dress. A few summer resident veterans have joined them.
It is 9:15 and the veterans depart their shelter to assemble at the far end on Main Street, joining an awaiting gaggle of island school children carrying American flags and flowers. Parents hold the hands of the younger ones. One mother pulls her infant daughter in a red Radio Flyer wagon. The island children, antsy at the best of times, are subdued, one hopes awed by the solemnity of the occasion, or perhaps the result of a severe lecture on proper decorum from their parents.
Two trumpeters stay inside the Legion Hall quietly warming up – blowing a trumpet in 46-degree weather takes real expertise.
The crowd of 200 or more lining both sides of the street grows silent as the veterans march into view. There are no floats or firetrucks, as on the mainland parades, no military jeeps or marching bands. Just a dozen men, and one woman, six carrying rifles, marching in step, followed by the youngsters we pray never have to go to war.
The procession halts at the Legion Hall. Two senior veterans – one male, one female – enter the hall and stand at attention as David Cooper, the unofficial town orator, standing on a verdant lawn above the Memorial Fountain, 50 yards away, reads the names of the seven men killed in action in World War 2. This poignant list is composed of both summer and winter residents, including a Lamont and a Saltonstall.
The two veterans inside the Hall emerge with wreaths and join ranks with their fellows and march down the street and stop in front of David Cooper and his microphone and amplifier, though he needs neither to be heard. After wreaths are placed on the town memorial fountain, David reads the names of every man and woman from the island, beginning with the Revolutionary War, who has served in our nation’s conflicts. The Revolutionary War list seems longer than both the Civil War and the Second World War. Names are curiously absent from the War of 1812, but, then again, the Mainers were not too enthusiastic about that War, wanting to keep trading with England. There was just one name from the Spanish-American War.
The crowd is silent as the names are read. Even the seagulls seem to stop to honor the day. The only sound, other than David Cooper’s sonorous baritone, is the wind rustling the leaves of the tall elms canopying the street. Dogs sit obediently. One infant begins to whine and is carried off to a safe distance out of earshot. The surnames of the island veterans are the same from war to war – Cooper, Calderwood, Waterman, Crabtree, Brown.
David gets to Vietnam, and I stop photographing the children. My brother Steve was killed in Vietnam in 1967. This day, this ceremony, always hits me in the gut. I remember a courageous young man, my best friend, who went and didn’t come back. It was his duty, he said before going. He was proud to do it. I miss him still.
David Cooper then reads the 272 words of the Gettysburg Address as well, I imagine, as Lincoln did, and the Minister, Dave Macy, says a brief but heartfelt prayer for the living and the dead, and for our nation, and for Love.
The veterans, followed by the parade of children, march down to the ferry pier. Some children replenish their flower supply by raiding a lilac tree in a yard along the route. The villagers follow silently. On the pier, the honor guard fires a three-gun salute, as some of the children cover their ears.
Seagulls scatter to a safe distance. An elderly female veteran throws a wreath into the sea. A bugler – a teacher at the local school – blows taps. A second bugler – the minister doing double duty – on an adjacent pier blows an echoing taps. The children throw their lilacs and wildflowers into the harbor, parents holding on to their coattails so that they don’t follow the flowers into the cold waters. The veterans march proudly back to their hall.
The ceremony over, the townsfolk quietly visit with each other, summer and winter residents renew acquaintances, people linger. Half an hour beginning to end. Everything that could be said was said. The dead remembered, the veterans honored, and those who lost family and friends comforted. A community 12 miles from the mainland renews its commitment to itself and to the nation.