written May, 1967
Dear Nephew Ray,
Do you think the lilacs will last until Memorial Day? The two belong together, Memorial Day and great bunches of white and purple lilacs crammed in mason jars, leaning against weathered headstones, their flowerlets dropping like tears on the unheeding grass.
I do hope we will have had enough rain before then so that Mother Nature will finally give us one warm, sunny day. There is nothing more dismal than a soggy parade, wet crepe-paper bleeding red and blue all over everything it touches, and trying to fit the exercises into the high school auditorium when they were planned for out of doors.
Flaming red geramiums like beacons of hope, and fuzzy blue argeratum like symbols of faith, appear in the cemetery. Once more the pilgrimage is made, the time of remembering comes again, the time for recapturing old laughter and tears, for the reassurance of perpetuity.
I wonder what the men who fought the bloody battles of the Civil War, in whose memory this day of decorating graves and marching in parades was begun, would think of the armies we have today. They were nearly all citizen soldiers, not used to taking orders without question and being regimented in all their activities. They were poorly uniformed, ill housed, and abominably fed, to say nothing of the snarls of red-tape and indecision that plagued their leaders. Yet the letters Pa wrote home from that war are hauntingly typical of the words a modern soldier might write. For instance:
I hoped to bring my next letter myself but how little do we know what a day may bring forth. While we were congratulating outselves upon the certainly of going home and seeing our loved ones again, another dispatch came ordering us to Washington to be mounted and equipped. It was a terrible dissappointment to us all after being so certain that we were going to be discharged. But our army had met with a reverse and the government was calling for more men and of course they would not discharge any more at present. We have got all our equipment now but our horses and I don't know when we shall get them but I presume it will be soon.
We have not yet been called upon to go on to the field of battle but there is no knowing how soon we may be when we are fully equipped. If it should be my fate to fall, let it be a satisfactrion to you to know that it was in a good cause and we shall meet in a better world where we shall never part."
Two years later he could still write: "Well, if this thing is ever ended by fighting somebody has got to fight and I am willing to do my share whenever I am called upon. Perhaps you may think I am getting discouraged but I am not and I think our prospects of ultimate success are better now than ever before. There has got to be many great battles yet and many thousand lives sacrificed before the rebels are going to think of peace.
In a good cause, I'm willing to do my share whenever I'm called upon." That was the attitude of the men, most of the men at least, in those days. There were a few who bought their way out by paying a substitute to fight for them, a perfectly legal business at the time. But most of those were men with large families or businesses or in poor health, something that was taken little notice of until a man sickened and possibly died under the rigors of military life. Medical examinations before enlistment were cursory to say the least.
"To think of peace." They did that and longed for it. To get away from mud and cold, screaming bullets and the cries of wounded men and horses, the horrible food and endless marching a-foot or on horse-back in rain that never seemed to slacken. It was as though the heavens wept for the carnage wrought by each encounter.
They were proud men who in after-years fastened gleaming brass GAR buttons on their dark suit-coats to march in Memorial Day parades, whose bent bodies snapped erect and palsied hands held firmly their salute when the Flag went bye, whose eyes misted when they heard the Star Spangled Banner, and who wept openly and unashamed when Taps sounded at the Memorial service. Scarred, in broken health, with only a beggardly pittance from the government as a pension for the service they had rendered, the last of the old warriors lived out their years and died, honored and respected by their neighbors.
Small boys gathered to hear the tales spun round the village store's cracker barrel or beside the glowing forge in the blacksmith's shop. The accolade "He fought in The War" carried all the honors of a knighthood. Dignity, pride, and self-respect marked those men who were our nation's soldiers during her fratricidal war.
On Memorial Day little flags will flutter over thousands of graves, veterans of the Civil War, Spanish American War, World Wars One and Two, Korea, and Vietnam. Wreaths will be placed, speeches made, bands play, tears shed, and our duty done for another year.
Then we can go on into summer, enjoying its long days of swimming, picnicing, travel, gardening, and laziness. We can scratch mosquito bites, peel sunburn, and dab vinegar on poison ivy rash. Occasionally we may go back to the cemetery to water crocks of geranium or remove them if the flowers have died. What else is there to do? Or think about? What else should we do? What else can we do? I wonder. Don't you?
Uncle Jos sends regards as do I,
Your Aunt Katy