Forty-five years ago, Memorial Day became a national holiday.
But in Waterloo, NY, my hometown, this year will be 150th observance of Memorial Day.
Often called “Decoration Day” in some parts of the U.S., it was conceived after the Civil War, as a call to remembrance of the soldiers who died in the war.
It now commemorates the soldiers who have died during all of America’s wars.
The residents of Waterloo first held the ceremony in 1866, and have never failed to mark the event since then.
Fifty-eight villagers had died fighting for the Union Army.
Some were draftees. A good number of them were immigrants. German, English, Irish, Canadian, they died along with the native-born.
In 1966, the village was recognized by Congressional and Presidential proclamations as “The Birthplace of Memorial Day.”
Waterloo’s ceremonies were not the earliest, nor were they the sole inspiration for our national day of commemoration. Nonetheless, the village should be recognized as a “birthplace,” because it was the first community to institute a non-sectarian, community-wide, official event. All businesses in the village closed that day, and the commemorations have been consistently observed, in peacetime and wartime, each and every year since 1866.
In Waterloo, it was never “Decoration Day;” it has always been called “Memorial Day.”
In 1866 the entire country was already in mourning, and trying to come to terms with the loss hundreds of thousands of citizens. It was a nation of widows, orphans, bereaved parents, lost families, and countless veterans left maimed physically and mentally, and sometimes, shipped home only to continue dying from wartime injuries, diseases, and drug addictions.
There was a common impulse, North and South, to pay tribute to the dead, by formal observances, floral tributes, speeches, parades and poetry. From Maryland to New Mexico, Florida to Pennsylvania, soldiers’ remains were gathered from shallow graves near battlefields, camps, prisons, and hospital yards, and re-buried in orderly plots, some of them laid out uniformly in huge federal cemeteries, and some designed as beautiful community parks . A new industry was born, as sculptors began to create thousands of monuments. Robert E. Lee’s “Arlington” estate was transformed into a vast necropolis.
It was at Arlington National Cemetery, in 1868, that General John “Black Jack” Logan and the G.A.R. (which became the largest Union veteran’s group) initiated the ceremony which became the national Memorial Day.
Logan began his political career as a pro-slavery racist, but during the course of the war, was transformed not only into one of the best of the politician-generals, but also into a “Radical Republican,” supporting the freed slaves.
My favorite story is from Columbus, Georgia, also during the spring of 1866, because the townsfolk there decorated both Confederate and Union graves.
“Decoration Day” had long existed as a custom in many communities, when the grass at burial grounds was trimmed, and evergreen boughs and flowers were brought graveside.
The association of greenery and flowers with memorial services long predates the Civil War, or even the existence of the United States. Flowers and garlands have been found in Neolithic graves and Pharaohs’ tombs.
For many people, especially in English-speaking countries, poppies are now associated with the First World War and remembrance of “Flanders fields”. But for many centuries before that, they served as a symbol of sleep, death, oblivion, ease of pain, and for some, resurrection. Poppies are mentioned in this way by Roman poets and Shakespeare, and you’ll see them carved on old tombstones and monuments from the Civil War.
On Boston Commons, there is a beautiful bronze sculpture by Saint-Gaudens, portraying Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the famous 54th Massachusetts Regiment, comprised of free blacks and escaped slaves. Above the soldiers, hundreds of whom died in a hopeless assault at Fort Wagner, is the figure of a woman, not a Winged Victory, I think, but a gentle-looking angel of death, carrying poppies.
In a sense, Memorial Day is “kept evergreen,” as the old folks used to say, because generation after generation has produced a new crop of fatalities to mourn.
A few years ago, another shrub and a piece of granite were added to the village green. A “Rose of Sharon,” the national flower of South Korea, was planted as a remembrance of what some call “The Forgotten War”. I don’t think our climate will allow a pool of lotus flowers for Vietnam, but we can grow hardy varieties of roses (Iraq) and certainly tulips (Afghanistan).
Reminders are everywhere.
The bronze Napoleons on our village green are from the Civil War. The most popular cannons of the war, they could shoot a twelve-pound iron ball for nearly a mile, or shred infantrymen with grapeshot and canister.
The V.F.W. has a “Huey Cobra” on their lawn, to evoke Vietnam. Over 3,300 of them went down during the war.
The American Legion sports a 37mm M3, a little antitank cannon, from WWII. It’s shells proved effective against lightly-armored Japanese tanks, but bounced off the panzers like marbles.
Driving around this area, you’ll find a Revolutionary cannon, a Korean War jet, an armored car…it will just be a matter of time before they ship us a Humvee or a Bradley in desert paint.
It would be nice to have more flowers around here, too. There are poppies in the garden at home. They blossom this time of year, but last a very short time, before the petals fall to the ground.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
At the time I lived there, Hull was a city on the rebound.
The city’s economy had turned from old-time shipbuilding and fishing, to healthcare, pharmaceuticals, and the university. It was right near the fantastic Humber Bridge and the beautiful Yorkshire Wolds, Vales, Dales, and other expanses of heather & gorse or whatever, all dripping with healthy picturesque outdoorsy-ness. Yachts in the marina. Aquarium. Ferry lines carrying a million people a year to the Continent. Beautiful museums, theatres, and art galleries. About to be named the UK’s “City of Culture” for 2017.
Personally, I was a bit in the dumps.
It was a big adjustment, to move from a college in subtropical Hong Kong, to northern Yorkshire, in the wintertime. Hull is about the same latitude as Minsk, perhaps not quite as festive. I missed my friends at home, and the new friends I’d made in Hong Kong. I missed the beautiful neon swirl and perpetual energy of HK, too. I even missed the snow back home. This place wasn’t as cold as Upstate NY, but it was often chilly and gray.
So here is my unvarnished recollection of a “study abroad” semester.
The Student Ghetto
I’d chosen the U of Hull for some history courses that sounded really interesting, and they turned out to be fascinating. But it was a tough semester – I was playing catch-up in an unfamiliar field, and unused to the British approach to learning. Some rainy days, I felt unhappy and claustrophobic in my tiny house in the student ghetto, surrounded night and day, inside and out, with drunks, bad pop music, and racket.
I know this sounds “snarky.” Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind a party on Saturday night, and love music, but to cross the Atlantic Ocean, think you’re safe, and then wake up at 2 AM to find that Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus have followed you, and crawled ashore, making their crappy noise? And sounding waterlogged, because you have a head cold.
I also love English beers. But by the glassful, not the gallon. And as a rule, not for breakfast.
There were days when the constant uproar made me miserable.
The actual classes, I loved. The professors and my classmates – they were great. Some of them were locals, former ‘Ull fishermen and sailors, being re-purposed for the new, improved UK. Their deadpan jerkin’ and muttered comments on the professor’s knowledge of ships were hysterical. But somehow, I had set up a schedule at odds with everyone else’s, making it hard to hang out with classmates or housemates. The courses themselves were excellent, even if the readings were sometimes the only thing that could put me out at night.
Other than at the library, I wasn’t getting a lot of sleep. The University had converted an entire street of tiny row-houses into student housing – mine wasn’t bad, but featured dripping pipes, an unpredictable, malevolent little cooker that kept incinerating my dinner, and a bunch of housemates practicing The Tao of Alcohol: Beer As a Way of Life. With that goal in mind, the kids in my house had chosen only afternoon classes, so they could go out every night, and crash home about 3 AM. Every night.
Most of the American, African, and Australian students in the ghetto didn’t give a damn about the University. They were there to drink.
Hull followed an old seafaring pattern – take aboard as much cargo as you could, tack to the other end of the street, careen & offload the cargo. I guess the old competitive drive that built the Empire still exists — even on a wet Tuesday night in February, Hull produces more drunks than an entire New Orleans Mardi Gras.
So every night, the Yanks, Brits and Aussies in the street, outside my ground floor window, gave off clouds of cigarette smoke and unloaded gallons of used beer from various orifices.
And then they sang.
At first, the singing was kind of endearing. Seriously. Hulking rugby players, weaving down the street, or in the back alley, falling over the dustbins, singing songs from “Frozen” in their bizarre accents.
By the end of the week, it was not so amusing. And there were months of this to go.
Walk the Walk
So, since I couldn’t concentrate or sleep, I would walk.
All winter, I wandered the town’s confusing back alleys, church yards, windy narrow roads, cobble-stoned rows. Many secluded and private in that peculiarly British manner. In the U.S., there’s always a sign, alerting you to dead ends and cul-de-sacs. In England, streets may just peter out without warning, stranding the walker, as if it was just a road crew’s oversight, or lack of interest in going any farther that direction, or maybe they ran out of macadam, and decided to put up a house instead.
Leaving 1 Cottingham Road, I’d slip out, usually in a bad mood, angry at sloppy-drunk roommates, my horrible cooking, the gray weather.
Based on the day, the time, and which way the freezing rain was driving in from, I would either wander until I arrived on the far side of campus, or make a right turn, and arrive at a Chinese-owned deli. Because I know a few words of Cantonese, the deli’s owners would always question me in depth about things in Hong Kong, no matter how many times I ‘d explained, I was in fact an American who’d just spent one semester there.
Zebra Crossings. Run, Robbie, Run!
On my longer walks, I’d begin by taking my life in my hands.
Meaning, I’d try to actually cross the street. Hoping that this particular day, the insane and homicidal bus drivers that define life across the pond, were in a mood to stop at the light. Or else, I’d walk down the avenues near Cottingham, pass the fenced-in yard of the old school, and scramble across the street, toward the Tesco and the battered women’s shelter. Those two institutions were an interesting combo to be sure. One of the local merchants actually explained to me that he believed there was a connection – the denizens of that Tesco, according to him, were a wife-beating mob. One Supposes that the More Enlightened might only Purchase Provisions & Provender at Marks & Sparks. Whole Foods in all its pristine-ness has not yet reached Hull.
One plus: walking angrily in England means that those who normally ignore you stay clear out of your way.
When I wasn’t looking deranged and angry, and sometimes, literally feverish, it was slow going. Sleep-deprived and cranky, it seemed I was endlessly weaving through lumbering throngs, not accustomed to moving at a New York pace, and as I negotiated the crowds in the poorer neighborhoods, of local shoppers or pub-hoppers, in my hyper-irritated state, they seemed to be a consistent mass of the chain-smoking, heavy, and alcoholic.
But sticking to my weaving, in-and-out, gradually I’d make headway down Newland Avenue, and my black mood would lift.
As I arrived somewhere that I loved. This street was full of vendors, hawking fresh produce, a bakery, a Polish grocery where no one smiled or spoke English, a tailor, several barbers, clothing shops, night clubs, pubs, coffee houses, and trendy joints for all the hip young monied English folks. Everything you need, could be had on Newland.
Fish & Chips & Vinegar
Another Tesco was there – you could grab the overpriced produce, that went brown by the next morning, and bread that either went bad in two days, or else never went bad at all. Pale-skinned chickens, onions with strange case of spots, frozen cod or haddock. You’d make small talk with the cashier, one of the few locals to do so, and so you’d stop in more than you should normally. Same goes for the fish-and-chips shop, a chance to chat with someone normal. I’d stop in after a weary day and get rejuvenated with the warm, crumbly haddock and vinegar-soaked fries. So good. The British have delicious malt “Win-a-Gah,” as the shopkeep called it.
Or, I’d go to Pie 2, a local chain, and get savory meat pies, for five pounds, not a shabby deal, seeing what food costs in that culinary-dreary student ghetto. On nights when I couldn’t hack my own cooking, I’d get these meat pies, stuffed with anything, all of them really good. Or I’d go to the Greek gyro place, or the “Macau” house – although I’d often regret eating their odd fusion of Asian and British foods.
Back on the walk, I’d only made it to the antiquated rail bridge over the street, that announced you’d arrived on Newland, and I had a ways to walk. I could make a right, head down a beer bottle-strewn back alley, into a very lovely part of town, with nice homes of the Victorian style, interesting European cars, and nice, respectable-looking folks milling about, in their slow and awkward Yorkshire manner.
A Walk in the Park
At the end of the way, I’d pass the old pub and arrive at Pearson Park. An old Victorian park, indeed, the old queen herself was sitting there, cast in bronze. On days I was short on time, I’d make this my destination, and just wander around the little gardens and manicured lawns. Somewhere around here, Hull’s resident poet Philip Larkin had lived, scowling out his window no doubt at the lovely trees. Here, among fountains, statuary, and a greenhouse that offered some respite from the North Sea’s cold winds, constantly blowing into this city, I’d go and feel refreshed. Until seeing all the happy couples, families, and friends hanging out together, while I was on my own, made me feel blue again.
I’d then race down the next set of streets to hit downtown, passing by the more upscale shops and restaurants, stopping once to eat some incredible Moroccan food.
After this lovely jaunt in the park, I’d roar by all the hip places in town. If I went straight down the way, past the Polar Bear pub (which can be seen in The Hubbards “Is it Me?” video), you’d arrive at the KC stadium.
Tigers Tigers Burning Bright
I only watched one match at the stadium, with my roommate Jaden, to see Hull City play Newcastle. We cheered and had a great time, and the local crowd turned out to be great, even when watching with dismay as their proud footy team was dismembered by the Magpies, and the cheers turned rather vulgar. Here, for the first time, I saw Brits from all walks of life come together. And to their credit, the Hull fans demanded that the Newcastle people get kicked out, when they turned unsporting, and to nasty jeering. To the Hull fans, singing a few bits of profane lyrics about genitalia and the other team’s manager was sporting, anything beyond that was not. I was proud of them.
Sometimes I’d head down to the old city. Passing by a sketchy part of town, with a housing project for recovering addicts, you arrive at the theater, the new hotel, and the wonderful train station,next to the gorgeous George Hotel (Saint George? King? Prince? something George hotel, where Larkin used to hide out, when he couldn’t hack living with people).
The hotel marked the start of the old part of town. Walking along the cobbled streets, among pubs from centuries ago, next to modern shops, where all of the English lads would come out with trendy clothing, looking like very hip tablecloths. Old restaurants, arcades, museums, and cool old pubs were the highlights of this part of the town, culminating with the gorgeous harbor along the river. The museum street also housed the oldest pub in town, the no longer PC “Ye Olde Black Boy” from the 1300’s. The publicans and drinkers, to my surprise, would listen to my accent, stare at me a bit, and then quietly nod and make me welcome. Friendly drunks would insist on jumping in and posing for my photos.
Walking along past the excellent Maritime Museum, the BBC regional studios, the big glassy mall, and remnants of the old city gate – where the Civil War began, when the King was denied entrance. Ran across William Wilberforce’s house by accident. The old warehouses along the river side, now converted to clubs and bars. Wandering along curved walkways on echoing cobbled streets, it was easy to get lost. And I often did, stumbling along and arriving by statues of people I’d never heard of, by old pubs, arriving at some point by the magnificent church, and pass “The Smallest Window in England” which always make me laugh for some reason. It was here, in this old part of town, I spent a lot of hours, wandering and exploring. And I’d have spent even more, if the restaurants weren’t so prohibitively expensive on a student budget.
Starting to get cold. The house lights coming on. I’d head back before it got dangerous, after all, late nights, Hull does have a reputation for occasional violence.
As I read back through what I’ve written, I guess this isn’t a particularly inspiring tale of “study abroad” tale? And not an very organized or enlightening city tour. But for some reason, I replay these walks sometimes in my head.
I close my eyes and re-walk it, passing through distinctive zones, from the public-lavatory-brick-student-ghetto, past dreary Victorian row houses, through a winter-gray but lovely park, to docks, winding old lanes, hallowed pubs, and the ancient-modern combination that defined the downtown.
This was my survival stomp through Hull, and it got me through. Spent time in a real place, not just the university bubble.
After all that grousing — I’m glad I went, I learned a lot, I came to feel some affection for a place pretty foreign to me.
But, still, years later, whenever I hear a song from “Frozen,” I smell cigarettes, secondhand beer and rugby players.
Some people in my household believe we need to eat “ancient grains” for breakfast, instead of starting your day like a civilized human being, with coffee, home fries, eggs, toast, and bacon.
I’ve had a lot of time to think about this, as a semi-pro historian, as I sit chewing. And chewing.
Did you ever think, that the people who came up with these ancient grains, pretty much all ended up as mummies?
And their civilizations are in ruins.
Why? Because they couldn’t hear their enemies coming, over all the crunching.
I mean, the Babylonians, Tlaxcaltecas, Chaldeans, Assyrians, etc. are all gone, daddy, gone.
There’s no coming back from a bad breakfast.
They lost their birthright for a mess of pottage.
Does that even sound like a good idea? I mean, I don’t even know what exactly that is, but who wants something called “a mess of pottage” first thing in the morning?
They could no longer communicate, too busy chewing, their molars worn down, and couldn’t shout warnings like “Nebuchadnezzar, Ashur-etil-ilani, Cyaxerxes, take heed and beware! Vigorous tribesmen who’ve had a proper breakfast are storming the gates, whilst our dispirited guards still sit at table, chewing! ”
Just try yelling that out, with a mouth full of pottage.
All they could do is mumble, and try to find the darned belt for their bathrobes, while they were overrun by tribes with chariots and bacon.
Nomadic tribesmen swept in from the steppes, because their horses were attracted by all the cereal, and their riders were highly caffeinated and restless.
And the bacon-eating nomads were immune to many of the era’s plagues, because mosquitoes and rats were repelled by their greasy appearance and nitrate-laden blood.
This is just a hypothesis, really. The Tower of Babel? Same deal. C. B. C. Cereal-Based Chaos. And just overwhelmed by choices: whole-grain, steel-cut, stone-ground, rolled, millet?
I’m going to keep working on this, tentatively entitled “Guns, Wheat Germs, and Steel” or alternatively, “Gums, Germs, and Steel-Cut Oats” something like that.
But first, I’m going back to bed, until it’s lunchtime.
I am amazed and fascinated by the bloggers who write-as-they-go. I mean, almost literally posting their life as it happens.
I kind of like to mull things over a bit. Meaning, sometimes, for years!
So…it has been a few years, but I wanted to describe one day, and a night, in the Southwest desert.
I’d visited my extended family in both New Mexico and Utah, but I had never been to the “Four Corners” region (where the northern corners of New Mexico and Arizona meet southern corners of Utah and Colorado). This was not a vacation, but rather a traveling class, the summer after my freshman year of college — learning about the ecosystems, cultural and biological, of the Southwest.
We visited a range of places: an old played-out mining town, several spots in the vast Navajo territory, and the ancient ruins at Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, and smaller pre-Columbian sites.
After a freshman year in a tiny concrete dorm, slogging through all the “requirements” I hated, to get them out of the way, this was like a slice of heaven. Eating Navajo fry-bread, staying in a haunted old hotel in Durango, rafting down a river in Utah, walking around Santa Fe, seeing beautiful country and towns.
The most striking element of the trip was visiting pre-Columbian sites in New Mexico and Colorado.
Visiting a deserted house always seems like an interesting detective challenge to me – seeing what information or impressions you can glean about the former residents. The folks at Chaco Canyon, who built all these complicated homes and religious chambers, and lived here for centuries, just walked away from it all eight hundred years ago.
You almost expect they’d leave a note on the kitchen table, telling us where they went, or why they left. Maybe a warning to us, about exhausting your resources.
Chaco Canyon is one of the oldest places I’ve ever been in this country. Some houses and kivas date back to the 800’s.
Other than Roman sites in Europe, the oldest structures I’ve seen. An eye-opener for an East Coast boy, growing up where everyone likes to consider themselves the keepers of the nation’s history.
I’ve walked through 17th century houses in the Hudson Valley, New England, Pennsylvania, and the south. The history center at my college, founded during the Revolution, is in a colonial-era custom house. All of us history buffs in the East, revere the remnants of the British days and New Netherlands, and just north in Canada, Nouvelle-France.
But, of course, the colonial buildings in the Southwest are even older. And then to see a native town many centuries older than any of those sites, was pretty spectacular.
Aesthetically, I much preferred Mesa Verde, with the dense pine forests on the mountain sides providing a more beautiful, and certainly more dramatic backdrop, than the vast expanses of brown and yellow desert of New Mexico. But, Chaco was the older site, and the start of a great adventure.
Part of what made our visit to Chaco Canyon so memorable, was that we stayed there at night.
Summer in Chaco Canyon, during the daytime, is not pleasant. The New Mexico sun is just too intense for a fair-skinned northerner. When 110 degree heat is beating down from a large and unrelenting sun, and you’re inhaling dust in airless old sunken kivas, and also discovering that some of the “ruins” had been rebuilt in the 1930’s (and not that well in many cases) made the whole complex seem less impressive.
But by night, they again became extraordinary.
Camping out let us see the solstice light shine into a special hole in a kiva, to mark the passing of the solar event,(Indiana Jones-style)
We spent a night enveloped by the most extraordinary stars.
The nighttime skies in the Southwest are incredible — so much clearer and darker than home, perfect for staring into the millions of twinkling celestial bodies. The”vastness of the universe” sounds corny, but it really unfolded before our eyes, making it seem even more magical to be lying a stone’s throw from the ruins of a vanished civilization.
By day, the desert is foreboding, vast and seemingly never-ending. It spread out all around us, making us feel isolated. And desiring to stay close to camp, so as to not get lost wandering it’s vast tractless expanse.
Heatstroke and dehydration outweigh other hidden dangers. I wasn’t too worried about rattlesnakes, we have them back home, too, and I’ve always thought they seem like pretty reasonable creatures – – I appreciate that they give us a warning, so they don’t have to bite.
But at night, the darkness softened the intensity of the desert and gave a sense of release.
The ruins, impressive in the daytime, seemed far more ancient by night, lit by our fires. The campfires cast a glow on the old stones.
Do I even remember this right? Or did I invent the memory — I think we had fires there. Or perhaps just lanterns. It was forest fire season, but there was so little vegetation, it was ok to build a fire in specific camping spots.
Maybe I just wanted to remember campfires, staying at a place where the home fires went out so many years ago.
We were there very briefly, and the people that built these homes, had withered away long ago. The old phrase seemed very apt “the sands of time.”
But the stars, and the entire universe were seeming to expand before our very eyes.