I carried a big stone as I walked toward the curb. Using it to hold down a corner of the blanket, I sat down cross legged and stared down the sidewalk. I spotted my cousins and began waving my arms until they saw me. As they ran to me, I jumped up to stretch the blanket out from corner to corner one more time.
We chatted back and forth, giving each other shoulder punches that middle school boys our age are prone to do… After a while, we tired of the game. I reached into the cooler that mom had packed for me early this morning. I handed each guy a cold bottle of water. “Mom said to make sure we stay hydrated, it’s gonna be over 90 degrees before we head home.”
We were all lying back on the blanket when the sound of sirens pierced the air. We scanned the roadway toward the water tower and saw the blue and red bubble lights spinning around. I felt a rush of adrenaline, I knew that it was about to start. Leaning up on one elbow, I felt my body tense up with anticipation.
Soon they came. First the police cars that announced the parade, flags attached to the windows. Next, the marching band from the high school, led by the drum major and the ROTC Color Guard. Presenting the colors for the crowd. Followed by clowns on stilts, then the convertible with the Mayor waving a greeting to onlookers. Then came the Shriners on minibikes squealing through the road, figure eights and revving their engines.
Horses and the guys behind them with shovels and big gray rolling trash cans…
Floats that were nothing more than trailers covered with crepe paper decorations pulled by cars while the riders threw candy to all of the little kids… Then, families with children on bikes decorated with red, white and blue streamers flowing from the handlebars… Dogs being led on leashes with decorated collars… Anyone and everyone that wanted to be in the parade joined in.
Car horns blaring, sirens screaming and bike bells ringing – all in celebration. Peppermint candies peppered the crowd. Another clown walked by handing out coupons for the nearby ice cream parlor.
This was all just an exercise for me. I was still watching for him.
I knew he was coming – he should be in sight soon.
More convertibles, then motorcycles zigg-zagging across the road from side to side. I felt the vibration of their engines in my chest as they went by me. Exhilarating.
I heard the bugle. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up as the sound of “Taps” filled the air. The end of the parade almost in sight, I stood in solemn respect for the honor of military members – a presentation of names on placards, one-by-one, the marchers carried names of those who sacrificed their lives for our freedom.
In our small town of 8,000, we had lost over a dozen men over the years in wars – from the “Big One” to the current MidEast conflicts. Tractors were safer, but Patriotism ran high here in the farmlands of Ohio.
Then I saw it, my dad’s name on the heavy poster board. The name I had stenciled with black paint just two days ago.
“Captain Henry V. Jenkins, USAF – HERO”
I held myself at attention, as much as an 11-year-old can. I paid my dad respect in the way that I knew how, with my ball cap in my right hand covering my heart. As the cousins stood just a half-step behind me, they remained silent as my sobs were held at bay, even though my torso trembled.
“Thanks Dad, in my heart, Memorial Day will always be about you.”
As I pulled the wheeled cooler back to the house, I noticed my mom a block behind me. I waited until she caught up.
Unashamed, I reached for her hand. Quietly, we completed the trek home.
Honor the fallen, hold your soldier close.