There are a few days before the traditional celebration of Veterans Day, not the so-called Republican version we have been observing since the Nixon Administration. The changeover happened so long ago, perhaps 45 years in the past, that there is little need to debate the issue. Suffice it to say that the deed makes the day.
The observance used to be a genuine big deal when we were schoolchildren. We rehearsed special music and memorized poetry in honor of our veterans. At the time, there were still some older people who referred to it as Armistice Day, and the two names were somewhat interchangeable even in the early ‘60s.
I know that we did this all through grade school, but the productions I remember best took place on the stage of the brand spanking-new New Bethlehem-South Bethlehem Elementary School. As an eight- or nine-year-old, there was nothing quite like the sheer lusciousness of a new building that nobody had used before.
This included the combination cafeteria and auditorium. Until 1963, I don’t think that any of us had encountered a space in which you could roll cafeteria tables to the sides and stow them inside the walls. That one thing always seemed miraculous to me until I learned about Murphy beds from the 1930s.
If the assembly was for students, the tables remained fully deployed as they were during lunch. If there were Big People invited, the tables were stashed, and rows of folding chairs took their places, the sure sign of a special occasion.
The Boy and Cub scouts wore their uniforms to school on those days. I can’t quite put my finger on the impression they made because a Scout uniform was not exotic at our house. My brother was one of those guys who trotted out of the house proudly in his khaki and red outfit, and it seemed very honorable and patriotic.
I remember one year when Vada Jean Roof put us through our paces to the tune of “The Washington Post March.” We were rather young, and the age of the flutophone in every school had not arrived, and so we jangled our way through the song using percussion instruments.
I think I played a string of jingle bells attached to a length of elastic. I never became an accomplished percussionist, but I must say that I played a mean set of slapping and tapping hands when Huey Lewis and the News became popular in the 1980s. I owe my coordination to Miss Roof.
Someone was always tagged to recite “In Flanders Fields.” One year, I drew the task of memorizing the poem, “Blow Bugles Blow.” Fifty-some years later, I still remember snatches of it but mangle most of it, something I sometimes do with my own phone number.
That was a year of mental snapshot, 1963. We were in a brand-new school with an awesome activity space. We would hear mention of places named Laos and Vietnam on the radio and television but we didn’t know where they were yet. President Kennedy held news conferences about those places, but he was struck down by an assassin’s bullet 11 days after that Veterans Day program.
I don’t know why it should be, but 1963 feels like one of those watershed years in which everything changes. There was a snippet in Life magazine after the Kennedy assassination in which a woman lamented that nobody would ever smile again. Her male companion corrected her, saying that, no, nobody would ever be young again.
That was a bit overstated. Any nine-year-old still felt like a kid, but the entire country snapped out of the dreaming 1950s and entered the tumultuous 1960s. It was the end of a relatively innocent era and the beginning of a truly modern time.
The Vietnam War heated up in earnest the following year. There was the Mod Movement and the fashion of Carnaby Street in London, harbingers of the counterculture movement that represented the 1960s. We had the Great Society, the riots in LA’s Watts section, the Bobby Kennedy assassination and the Martin Luther King killing.
A little more than 16 years ago, we went through the 9/11 attacks, and that shock was a similar watershed event. If you look around you, everything looks more or less the same. But it isn’t.
The First World War was another of those defining moments for an earlier generation. Young men went off to fight in America’s first real war fought on foreign soil, and it marked them for the rest of their lives. Young women followed, filling empty jobs left by men gone to war, and they also changed.
The war to end all wars didn’t. The messy Middle East that we know today sprang from that conflict, and the immigrants who pose such a problem to Europe are the great-grandchildren of people displaced a hundred years ago. Another generation of American veterans has come home from conflicts fought in countries carved out of the old Ottoman Empire.
I am an optimist, but I don’t think that there is any way to eliminate war once and for all. It seems to be something hardwired into the human brain. It is good to pray for peace, but you have to get your hands dirty in the meantime.
I don’t know how we will manage that. People smarter than I have pondered it and only came up with more effective ways to slaughter their fellow man.
Meanwhile, the poppies still grow in Flanders Fields, between the crosses row on row.