Monday, May 28, 2007

Memorial Day: Marching Through Dorchester

After the march to Cedar Grove Cemetery and a volley from the rifles, people took their time scattering. It was one of those intervals when a solemn observance dissolved into a holiday weekend. Children played with flags and make-believe swords. As the sprinkles became more noticeable, many took refuge under trees or claimed a spot for their folding chairs. Members of veterans posts who had filed down Dorchester Avenue were trickling back into formation before the speakers’ platform. One of the veterans, dressed in a cap and white shirt, scanned a row of gravestones until he came to a stop. For a moment, he snapped to attention, gave salute, then moved on.

In the unchanging ritual of Memorial Day, all wars and veterans seem very much alike. People who served in Vietnam listen to speeches about World War II and Iraq, and the roll-call of the deceased skips from war to peacetime and one era to another. Among the Dorchester veterans who died in the past year was 29 year-old Army Specialist Edgardo Zayas, who was killed in a roadside bomb explosion while on patrol in Baghdad. A Dorchester native, 19 year-old Kevin J. King, died while training for Iraq in the US Army at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Also mentioned during the roll-calls was the man for whom the John McKeon Post is named. He died 65 years ago in a reconnaissance plane over the Philippines and, before the war, had taken part in the same ritual at Cedar Grove as a member of St. Brendan’s Band. And, while Brigadier General Thomas J. Sellers was giving his address about the National Guard in Iraq, and politicians were setting up their umbrellas, a veteran of an earlier war ran a comb through his white, rain-slicked hair.

After the speakers finished, the veterans reassembled and got ready to head back out. For a while, there was some confusion in the ranks of the McKeon Post about whether there’d be a march past a reviewing stand. The commander went to ask the veterans just ahead of them in a trolley bus. He came back and reported to a tall man with a banner, who announced, “We’re going to climb a hill.” The commander then gave an order: “Follow the bus.” But, before they could advance, another post member added, “Tell the bus to go.”

When the last soldiers had withdrawn, the clouds retreated and the plod of a bass drum gave way to the treeborne ricochet of bird calls. Because it was Memorial Day, many of the gravesites looked freshly spruced up. They stood in tight, orderly rows, many of them with personalized markers. There were angels, fairies, teddy bears, butterflies, even a leprechaun, a pine cone, and a golf ball in a flower bed. To judge by the things left behind, Memorial Day was the opposite of Halloween. Instead of the living dressing up as the dead and paying a visit, the dead were decked out as the living and receiving visitors. Their outpost was the house next door with the freshly planted flowers. And, once again, it seemed a flier who never grew old could be a kid playing in the band.