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Reflections May 2015

The Raven Lunatic

Decoration Day

By Amy Abbott

While the federal holiday after Race Day was called Memorial Day, many old-timers called it Decoration Day. My aunt Mary Irene Brown Roller made sure a flag decorated my Uncle Chat Brown’s grave, to commemorate his service in World War II.

Memorial Day weekend meant two important activities for a child growing up in an Indiana town in the 1960s. Race Day was about fun and family, and Decoration Day was about country and family. Sunday was Race Day, the day of the Indianapolis 500, and an acceptable reason for missing church. Family huddled around an AM radio to hear “Taps,” the Purdue Marching Band, and “Back Home Again in Indiana.”

The race started promptly at 11 a.m. with the call, “Gentlemen, start your engines.” Janet Guthrie had yet to break the barrier as the first female Indy car driver. Sid Collins called the race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network, which broadcast all over the world. Nothing speaks Race Day to a Hoosier like the static blare of AM radio, punctuated by the whizzing of race cars in the background.

My mom’s distant cousin, Roy Grugel, worked at the track in the 1920s. Can you imagine bragging about “worked in the pits?”

Race Day lunch meant grilling Eckrich hot dogs until they were almost black and crunchy. We drank cherry Kool-Aid, made with a cup of real sugar, and enjoyed Seyfert’s BBQ potato chips. The children and some adults played Jarts; a popular game eventually pulled off the market. The Jart was a long, metal lawn dart teams threw into a plastic circle. It often found its misbegotten way through someone’s foot. Still, we kept on playing. Tradition.

While the federal holiday after Race Day was called Memorial Day, many old-timers called it Decoration Day. My aunt Mary Irene Brown Roller made sure a flag decorated my Uncle Chat Brown’s grave, to commemorate his service in World War II. She also honored her parents, deceased siblings and other relatives with colorful flowers. My parents, almost 80, continue this tradition today, visiting many cemeteries in central and northeastern Indiana.

In May 1971, I marched with the South Whitley High School band in the Memorial Day parade. Before the consolidation movement, many Indiana schools were small township schools. I was an eighth grader, but the band needed warm bodies, so the junior high kids stepped up. We wore the same blue and white wool striped band uniforms my mother wore marching in the same parade in 1946. Wool is hot in May, and wool that old held generations of teenage sweat.

The entire town turned out to watch us. Old soldiers from the War to End All Wars, World War II and Korea marched ahead of us. On the sidewalks, Legion wives and widows sold red plastic buddy poppies for a dollar. The red poppy is a symbol of the fallen soldier, and it comes from the poem “In Flanders Field” in which poet John McCrae penned, “In Flanders fields the poppies blow between the crosses, row on row.”

We marched down State Street, playing “My Buddy,” a song that tells the poignant story of a World War I soldier who lost his friend. We marched on to the local cemetery where veterans and officials gave solemn speeches. The officials honored those in service, in a wetland known as Vietnam. Our ragtag band played “My Buddy” repeatedly, sounding much like the out-of-tune band in The Andy Griffith Show, a 1960s television favorite, celebrating small-town life. I think “My Buddy” was the lone song the summer band knew.

Despite the heat, the smell of old wool and a crowd of rowdy, over-sugared children, we all knew it was important to be there.

This day of remembrance — for those who served our country, for those who passed — made us pause.

I played my flute while some long-forgotten tenor sang the Gus Kahn song: “Miss your voice, the touch of your hand, long to know that you understand my buddy, my buddy, your buddy misses you.”

 

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