The small town of Geneva, Illinois, is an hour drive from Chicago when traffic is good. The sleepy upscale suburb celebrates Memorial Day with a parade on Monday. People line the curb edges, hours in advance of the parade’s beginning, in order to secure spots on blankets or sit in folding camp chairs. While waiting for the band music to begin, cotton candy and ice-cream are sold. Face painters decorate the children’s cheeks with glittered rainbows, snakes, and hearts. Everyone is excited as they wait for the Shriners, in tiny motorized cars or miniature motorcycles, to zip through the center of town with the tassels on their fezzes flying. The children are gleeful to see each miniature vehicle as it weaves down South Main Street in figure eight patterns. Convertibles with hand waving, cubby town officials are interspersed between troops of western horses with silver bridles and decorated saddles. The high school band marches and plays fight songs. A twenty-foot model of a fish, towed by a tractor, reminds people that the Fox River, which intersects Main Street, is an integral part of the town’s 150 year history.
But the end of the parade, the year I was there, waving my American flag on a stick and cheering my son who was pulled at the head of the children’s wagon brigade by his father, was the most moving of all parades I have attended. A small group of veterans brought up the rear, behind the Shriners and after the twenty-foot fish. They were a rag tag group of soldiers in Vietnam military jackets and torn jeans. The six men silently marched down South Main, carrying the black MIA banner and flags from the war. Saigon had fallen ten years earlier, but the war still quietly raged within them.
My brother had fought in that war. Upon graduating from college, he was drafted away from his prestigious job, his long term girlfriend, and his family. He arrived in Viet Nam in time for the Tet Offensive, and then completed his year of combat as he was ordered to do. He never spoke of his military actions during that time. He did tell me that he had never wanted to kill another human being until he returned to home to the United States, to San Francisco, his port of entry back to safety. Dressed in his army uniform, as he carried his gear through to San Francisco Airport, travelers spit on him. Anger rages within him too.
As the Viet Nam veterans marched by the blankets and chairs which lined the curb along South Main Street, everyone rose, stood at attention, and saluted as they passed. These were the first salutes, spontaneously given, to honor the Viet Nam vets that I had observed. It had taken ten years. I could no longer hear the band music. Every observer stood in hushed reverie for those who had been lucky enough to return home.
Whether or not the Memorial Day parade watchers had agreed with the battle against the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army, or marched against the conflict in protest, everyone stood to honor the few who passed before us. I could see the black flag as it disappeared down the street, carried for the soldiers who never came home. The sun shone, and in our silence, our hearts sang to honor their sacrifice. We sing today for their gift to our freedom. Happy Memorial Day.