Before I moved back to my hometown in New Jersey in 1998, I lived in the small town of Kent, Connecticut. It reminded me of what it was like to grow up in New Jersey in the 50's, when it was still a rural area, and maybe that's why I had chosen to live there in the first place. There was one traffic light at the main intersection, a few stores on Main Street, and the pace of life and the surrounding woods made me feel right at home.
As much as I enjoyed living in Kent, moving there from New Jersey did have some drawbacks. I didn’t get out much, because there wasn’t that much to do, and there were times when I missed the nightlife, the stores, and even the highway traffic I left behind. Every once in a while, I felt the urge to head back to Bergen County, or anyplace that was alive with activity, and in my case, it was always south to Danbury, Connecticut. It has a main "drag," lots of people, and, in the outlying areas, lots of homes, small stores, the usual fast-food restaurants, a few movie theaters, and a mall.
One year, in the early 1980's, I drove down to Danbury to see the Memorial Day parade. I picked a nice grassy spot on the corner of White and Main Street, opened my lawn chair, and waited for the parade to begin. Other people started to arrive, lining the kids up on the curb, and setting themselves up on blankets and chairs. There were two women sitting to my left, and slightly in front of me. Off in the distance, I could hear the sounds of a marching band coming from my right, and as a lone police car passed by, making sure the route was clear, the row of kids started waving their flags and cheering. I stood in anticipation of the colors, and watched as a small group of veterans from World War 1 slowly made their way up the street to where I was standing. They had been chosen to be the Grand Marshals of the parade in Danbury that year, and although I couldn't imagine what it must have been like to fight in World War 1, we had something in common. I saluted them as they passed by, and took my seat again.
When the veterans had reached the next corner, a teenage boy and girl hurried over to greet the two women who were sitting on my left.
"Hey, Mom," the boy shouted, "What'd we miss?"
"Oh, nothing," his mother said, "Just a bunch of old veterans...."
When I was a kid, the Memorial Day parade was one of the highlights of the summer. We may not have been fully aware of the reason why we had a parade, but there was no lack of excitement or enthusiasm for being a part of it. We'd all go up to the local candy store and buy 3-4 rolls of crepe paper, mostly red, white, and blue, or striped paper with patriotic colors and stars, and wrap it around the handle bars of our bikes, and weave it in and out of the spokes. Some of us bought plastic streamers, which we hung from the ends of our handlebars, and small American flags to tape to our bikes as we rode alongside the marchers, forming a small parade of our own.
This year, Vietnam veterans have been chosen to be the Grand Marshals of the parade in my hometown, and it will be our honor to represent all veterans in remembrance of those who gave their lives. This month's issue of the Legionnaires News, Post 170, puts it all in perspective:
"Try to take a moment or two on Memorial Day to honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for this country, and in some cases, for the benefit of the entire world. Maybe they weren't your sons, or brothers, or fathers. Maybe your life hasn't been personally touched by the death of a soldier. But their lives were as important to them as ours are to us, so let us make sure to give them the honor they deserve at least once a year on Memorial Day, for their willingness to give up that most precious gift we all have, our lives. Let us who remain, and benefit from their sacrifice, never forget what they have done for us."
Every once in a while, I think back to the woman in Danbury, and wonder how she could have missed the whole point of Memorial Day. Had I not been so misty-eyed and choked up at the sight of the old vets, I might have said something to her, but I let it go. Now that the years have gone by, I can even see the humor in her remark as I join a bunch of old veterans from my generation, and march in a Memorial Day parade myself.
The last time I marched in a parade, I was a Little League coach, responsible for herding a small band of little rascals through the streets, but this year, I’ll be thinking about the thousands of men and women from my generation who lost their lives in Vietnam. I'll be there to honor them, and to pay my respects to their families, and hope that they will never be forgotten.
I'll also be thinking about my own family, and the personal impact that Vietnam had on their lives, because not too long ago, I learned the true meaning of the old saying, "They also serve who sit and wait."
My father taught me how to play baseball. Most of the time, we would go out on the front lawn after supper and toss a ball back and forth, but sometimes, he would get the bat and hit me pop-ups and grounders so I could learn how to field, and when I seemed to be goofing off, or not paying attention, he'd throw in a line drive or two to keep me on my toes. I still have a copy of a book he gave me that shows the proper hitting stance, how to tag a runner, slide into a base, and all of the other essentials for playing good ball, and I remember being as fascinated by the drawings as I was about the prospect of becoming a better player. Even then, I had an interest in art, and I still pursue it today.
I wanted to be a catcher, so my first glove was a catcher's mitt, but as I got older and started playing the outfield, my father bought me a fielder's glove. It was a Rawlings, "Personal Model," with Herb Score's name inscribed in the pocket. To tell you the truth, I'm not sure I knew who Herb Score was at the time. I might have known something about him from the baseball cards I collected, but just the other day, I had to “Google” him in order to find out that he was a pitcher with Cleveland who started back in 1955, and made the cover of Sports Illustrated as Rookie of the Year. I also learned that he was a lefty, which was odd, since the glove my father gave me was for right-handers. I'm sure if I had pointed that out to him, he would have told me that he got it on sale. He had that kind of humor.
In 1963, the same year I joined the Marine Corps, my parents bought a small cottage at the Jersey shore. It was just a plywood "bungalow," with three very small bedrooms, located on the bay side of Ocean Beach III, but it was built on a lagoon, with its own dock and a wooden deck, and located on a quiet street away from the summer rush of tourists and traffic. Both my parents were teachers, so at first, the cottage was just for summer vacations and weekends, but when I came home from Vietnam, they decided to winterize it and make it year-round so I could stay there and commute to Monmouth College. Looking back now, I think they also wanted me to stay because they could see that my experience in Vietnam had not been good, and they wanted me to have a peaceful place where I could be by myself, and try to make sense of it. I'm not sure I ever did. It was not easy to talk about, and like a lot of veterans, I never said much about it, and tried to go on with my life as if it never happened.
But it did, and as much as it had affected my life, I think the months I spent in Vietnam were just as hard on my family as they were on me. I didn't fully understand that until my parents passed away, and my sisters and I spent several days at the cottage sorting through the things they left behind. It was not easy to do. We went from room to room, noting what things to save, and what we could donate, and trying not to be overwhelmed by the sense of loss.
There was an area on top of the closet in my parent's bedroom where they had stored a few boxes, pillows, and a winter quilt. I thought we should pack them up too, so I stood on a chair and started handing things down to my brother-in-law. After everything was cleared off, I noticed an old baseball glove, folded over and covered with dust, lying in the corner. I reached for it, stepped down from the chair, and opened it up.
It was my Rawlings.
At first, I wasn't sure where it came from, or why it was there, but as I looked it over, I suddenly realized that I was holding the same glove my father had given me nearly 50 years ago.
"Wow," I said. "This is my old glove!"
Until that moment, I had forgotten all about it. The leather was dry and dusty. The rawhide lace was broken in several places, and the writing in the pocket had become so faded and worn that it was hard to make out the name, but there it was, "Herb Score, Personal Model."
I was still trying to figure out how it ended up on top of my parents' closet when I realized my father had put it there. He had saved the glove and brought it down to Lavallette some time after I joined the Marines and went to Nam.
I turned to my brother-in-law, and said, "Can you imagine what this glove must have meant to him, waiting for me to come home from Vietnam, and not knowing if I ever would?"
We looked at each other, and I could tell he knew. We both knew.
So, at this year's Memorial Day parade, if you happen to see a Vietnam vet carrying a baseball glove, it's not because he got lost, or should have been marching with the Little League. It's because his family served right along with him, and he never wants to forget that, because they never forgot him.