Local Dispatch: Remembering Dad, Memorial Day has traditional appeal

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It doesn't take much to be transported back into childhood memories.

Sometimes all it takes is a trip to Wal-Mart and a glimpse of well-dressed, mannerly gentlemen standing by the entrance, blue and gold caps perched on their graying heads. Red poppies in one hand and a can for donations in the other, these veterans represent the willingness of some Americans to do whatever is necessary so that others in this country can sleep safely at night.

My father was a true patriot. He loved this country and was proud of his service in the Army, although he didn't speak much of the specifics. However, as a child, I remember seeing him walk up to such veterans and put in the can whatever he could spare at the time.

Holding my hand, he would instruct, "Say 'Thank you' to the gentleman and shake hands." To this day that's what I do. I had the pleasure of giving my grandson the same instructions recently. The sight of his small hand extended to the veteran brought tears to my eyes. Small red poppies were exchanged and the tradition continued.

My dad voted in every election and his proudest moment was when he took me to register to vote. I asked, "How should I register, Daddy?" His answer was typical of him: "Doesn't matter as long as you think about the person and decide if your interests are the same."

I've seen pictures of Dad much younger, standing tall and proud in his impeccably tailored sergeant's uniform. He cut quite a figure, thin and handsome. His blue eyes were remarkable, calling attention to themselves even in the black-and-white and sepia-toned pictures from the 1940s.

In my parents' wedding picture, Mom wore a beautiful mulberry suit -- straight skirt with a peplum jacket. Daddy stood ramrod-stiff beside her -- uniform fitting perfectly, shoulders back, eyes ahead. They were fortunate in being able to stay together through World War II, as Dad was a military policeman charged with guarding German prisoners of war in a camp in Maryland. When they were courting, Mom recalled, a "date" might include dinner at the camp, as the prisoners had steak and ketchup and other foods that were difficult to get during war rationing.

After the war, our family eventually moved to Wilmerding, which is where I grew up. As in most small towns, we celebrated Memorial Day with a parade. I was a "band kid" who played the clarinet in each parade.

I donned a scratchy wool band uniform and marched down the streets playing patriotic songs as the sweat rolled down from under my hat. Children would line the sidewalks and everyone waved flags and cheered. Fire trucks flashed their lights and sounded their sirens and everyone applauded. Then it was home to a picnic that usually featured homemade potato salad and ham.

Now I am a married woman with a grown daughter and two beautiful grandchildren. I have resettled very happily into Oakmont, another small town where such traditions have continued.

The school band marches in Oakmont for the holiday, but no heavy woolen uniforms are required. Girls from the flag squad wave and shake black-and-gold pompoms. The fire trucks join the procession, along with Boy and Girl Scouts, Little League players and others, all cheered by children and adults waving flags along the route.

My husband Pat, a lifelong resident, drives my decorated blue convertible containing the American Legion award winners, proudly seated in the back. His car follows right in line up to the cemetery at the top of the hill.

There, a more solemn commemoration occurs. I sing in the Oakmont Community Chorus, and we are charged with the musical part of the program. From the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" to theme songs of the various armed forces branches, we give honor to those who have served our country. Ladies and gentlemen rise from their seats and come to attention.

Chairs are placed around the tall flagpole and wreaths are placed to honor those who died in war, from the Revolutionary War to the present. Then the "honor roll" is called. As each name of a recently deceased veteran is announced, the silence gives weight to the occasion. A 21-gun salute is then fired, a trumpeter plays "Taps" and tears flow from man and woman alike.

And then the bagpiper, with his ethereal sound, pipes our heroes' souls "home."

Daddy would approve.

Bobbi Sullivan of Oakmont, a retired teacher, can be reached at bobbisullivan@gmail.com.

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