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Memorial Day - Panthers, Pathos and Pride

“They fought together as brothers-in-arms. They died together and now sleep side by side. To them we have a solemn obligation.”

- Admiral Chester W. Nimitz –

This week’s “A Veteran’s Story” does not single out a veteran to tell his or her story. Instead, I hope my story of decent men and women who are doing the right thing is the right thing for me to do on Memorial Day. We, as a country, have come too far at the cost of too many citizen soldiers to buy into the dishonorable messages of flag-stompers, crafty politicians, hate-mongers and race-baiters, and religions that execute the innocent in the name of their deity. I prefer America’s way of doing things, ‘One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.’

The Bartlett High School Panthers, class of 1965, held their 50th reunion over Memorial Day weekend. My wife and I attended. For many of my old classmates time has graciously stood still. Others, fighting various cancers or unable to attend due to unscheduled bypass surgery, were not as fortunate.

My old high school stomping ground in Bartlett, Tennessee was anything but old. What used to be farms, cotton fields and secretive dirt roads great for parking with your uninterested date, had been paved, bricked and mortared. Clean and appealing restaurants, businesses, hotels and banks were thriving, plus local neighborhoods displayed the homes and manicured yards of owners who cared.

To relive high school and talk about all the trouble we managed to find was a trip back to a time of faith, fastback Fords, and fathers who were unaware that discipline of unruly offspring violated the progeny’s right to grow up to become a social misfit. And we Panthers were Patriots.

We served our country in large numbers, a couple boys didn’t make it home, but we were taught to respect the Flag of our Fathers so we did what had to be done. The place for our trial was Vietnam, but unlike our fathers, we were not allowed to win. The tiny country of Vietnam changed us all.

Memphis and Raleigh had changed, too. In 1965, Bartlett and Raleigh were ‘bedroom communities’ of the superior Memphis metropolitan area, but now while Bartlett thrives Memphis and Raleigh shows signs of decay and neglect. My childhood home in Memphis near Highland Heights had virtually disappeared, as had the once-proud middle class neighborhood. Personal household belongings from recent evictions cluttered a few front yards, fences sagged, doors ajar, foliage dead or unattended, front porches boxed in with plywood. Our church was no longer a place of worship; the gorgeous stained glass windows my big sister painted replaced by tinted glass.

We moved to picturesque and peaceful Raleigh in 1962. What used to be a bedroom community now looks like a war zone. The indoor mall was mostly boarded up, replaced by shabby structures housing shady-looking businesses, chunks of broken cement utilized for a parking lot. A beautiful church once dominated the main intersection. The building even now resembles a place of worship but the sign out front identifies the property as Motel 6. Our once-proud neighborhood in Raleigh has lost its pride. Looking upon my parent’s last home brought tears to my eyes, trees gone, the yard unkempt, a broken window, paint chipped, and cheaply constructed houses backed up against our once-beautiful backyard.

Nearby homes of neighborhood classmates fared no better. I knew the families, I knew the pride and dignity of hard working Americans whose efforts financed these American dreams, these were veterans of WWII, this was the Greatest Generation. Garbage now clutters carports and curbs, tacky additions screamed of cheapness, cars were jacked up for repairs put on hold. My sister’s beautiful two-story home was painted a bright florescent green; my aunt’s cute residence once referred to as ‘the doll house’ now resembles a dilapidated dog house.

Our reunion’s finale at Colonial Country Club became a nostalgic event for yours truly. Classmates I may never see again laughed and hugged and kissed and reminisced, plus the Panthers were gracious enough to allow me to hog the mic and pay tribute to our classmates who served, all veterans of the Vietnam era, and to recall the boys we lost.

Sunday’s long drive home was an emotional roller coaster of pleasant memories yet a heartsickness for the boys lost, for a community lost, and for our lost innocence at the DMZ, in the Central Highlands, down to the murky Mekong Delta. I needed a serious dose of Happy.

Bright and early Memorial Day morning, Bill LeCount and I crawled into American Legion Rider Charlie Rizzo’s dazzling yellow dune buddy, call sign: Big Bird. The event, my second in a month with the Legion Riders, is called The Ride for America.

My first event this month, The Ride for the Fallen, drew over 200 Riders plus Big Bird. The Ride for the Fallen was inspiring; however, The Ride for America on Memorial Day left me amazed and proud of my fellow Americans and a gathering of self-sacrificing patriots called The Riders. What they did and what became apparent on Memorial Day is worthy of a second article on an assemblage of individuals unmatched in their enthusiasm and dedication to their country and fellow veterans. They supplied me with a serious dose of Happy.

Once upon on time in America John Q. Citizen lined the streets to watch patriotic parades. They cheered as men and women marched, typically to the music of ‘The March King’, John Philip Sousa. His marching music included “The Stars and Stripes Forever” and “Semper Fidelis”, official marching song of the United States Marine Corps. Patriotic parades are now rare, Sousa’s music played mostly during national programs; a new genre of music and patriots having stepped forward to fill the gap.

On this Memorial Day Bruce ‘the Boss’ Springsteen’s ballad “Born in the U.S.A.” boomed over loud speakers as over 1,000 motorcycles and Big Bird pulled out of Loganville’s American Legion Post 233 to form a two abreast military formation in the Ride for America. The last vehicle, Big Bird, pulled out 17 minutes after the first motorcycle took the point. A ‘parade’ of motorcycles, police escorts, and honored guests in vibrant Jeeps, and one dune buggy, stretched for 4 miles. All intersections and traffic signals were blocked off by our police escort.

The route took the ‘parade’ through Between (yes, there is a Georgia town named Between), Monroe, Social Circle, Rutledge, with the final destination, Madison, GA. Riders, jeeps, and Big Bird paid $10.00 per vehicle/bike and $5.00 per passenger. Several participants paid more than requested. One hundred percent of monies collected went to the Legacy Fund, set up since 9/11 to pay the tuition and college books for children of fallen soldiers. At present, 123 college students receive an education due to the Legacy Fund.

Approximately 85% of the Riders were veterans, the oldest an 85 year old Korean War veteran. Pride, sacrifice, love of country, all wrapped up in 4 miles of revved bikes, jeeps, and Big Bird. The ride itself is an awesome experience, but the big surprise was John Q. Citizen. People showed up in droves along the ‘parade’ route to project the patriotism many Americans feel has died of apathy. To the contrary, patriotism is alive and well in small town America.

All races, creeds, and colors waited for hours to witness the ‘parade’ of Riders. Nursing home and assisted living residents lined the roadways, sitting in wheel chairs, smiling, waving their tiny American flags. Riding lawn mowers with their owners perched on top awaited the procession at various intersections or side streets - if their motors were running we sure as heck couldn’t hear them.

Church parking lots were congested with flag-waving Christians, people sat in lawn chairs along the roadside waving hands and American flags non-stop at the long ‘parade’ of patriots, children perched on parents’ shoulders smiled, waved, and gazed in disbelief as a seemingly never-ending procession of noisy, but cool, motorcycles thundered by. Poor sections of towns stood in unity with ‘the haves’ to honor the men and women in uniform who gave their all to keep the American dream alive for every man, woman, and child in this land of opportunity.

Monroe, Rutledge, Between, Social Circle, hundreds of cars parked by the side of the road and driveways filled with cheering residents, the beds of pickup trucks jammed with starry-eyed kids, small town cops blocking off traffic, and the big-hearted denizens of Madison welcoming the ‘parade’ of thundering bikes, vivid Jeeps and a yellow dune buggy, all to express joy in patriotism, to support a hometown Memorial Day program, and to remember what Memorial Day is all about.

This year was a great year to recognize Memorial Day. American Legion Post 77 in Conyers had a great turnout for their Memorial Day cookout, the Walk of Heroes had a great turnout for their evening program, and Honor Flight Conyers made its 13th flight to Washington, DC with WWII and Korean War veterans on Wednesday the 27th, and yes, you guessed it, folks came out in droves at the airports and memorials to honor our aging warriors. As one veteran stated, “This is great, absolutely great.”

And that’s the way it should be: a great nation honoring the Greatest Generation, and remembering the greatest of heroes….the ones who fell for freedom.