Saturday, November 10, 2007

Veterans' Day

World War II vets are the subject of much attention this week as Veterans' Day approaches. They're all in their 80s now or older. It got me to thinking, and I was not sure my memory was working right, when I remembered that as a child, I saw Civil War Vets. That seemed unlikely until I did the arithmetic --- it's true, and the fact that I saw a living person born more than 150 years ago, means I'm not all that young myself.

In my small hometown in Ohio, there was always a big Memorial Day parade on May 30. (The observance was not changed to the last Monday of May until 1971). The holiday marked the end of the school year, the beginning of summer, the opening of the public swimming pool and the day my Dad set out tomato plants. The parade formed downtown, marched north past the high school where there was a brief ceremony in front of the Doughboy Statue. No, not the Pillsbury Doughboy, but a representation of a World War I soldier. When the parade reached the city hospital, the music stopped but the march went on, accompanied only by a cadence tapped out on the rim of the drum --- too much noise would disturb the patients inside. When the parade finally got to the cemetery, there was a longer ceremony which always included the recitation of the Gettysburg Address by a specially picked high school student (usually male.)

What fascinated me were the groups of vets who marched in the parade. As a young child, just after World War II, these recent vets all marched smartly and they all still fit into their uniforms. Preceding them were the World War I vets, a little gray and out of shape but still keeping up pretty well. Some of the Spanish American War vets still marched, but others rode in convertibles, waving and looking alert. But most honored were two or three very elderly, frail Civil War vets, propped up in open cars, looking about uncertainly. When you consider that they had probably been born between 1845 and 1850, they were approaching the century mark in age.

As the years passed and the last Civil War vet had died, the Spanish American War vets took their place as the oldest living veterans. Now the few remaining World War I vets are well over 100. This year I was in France on All Saints Day, and saw a small group of World War II vets with flags, marching into the cemetery, still looking surprisingly spry.

The parade goes on. Now there are Korean War vets, Vietnam War Vets, Gulf War Vets, and active soldiers in the diabolical conflict called the Iraq War. Will the time ever come when the only living veterans are as old as those Civil War vets I saw more than 60 years ago?


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