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Guns & Religion in a Small Town on Memorial Day

by

 

When the legend becomes fact, print the legend

I attended a ‘Salute to Veterans’ this past Memorial Day in Waldoboro, Maine, organized by the town’s Historical Society at the headquarters of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and co-sponsored by the American Legion.  For someone with my antiwar resume, albeit a veteran of a Vietnam combat unit, stepping over the threshold of a VFW Post can feel like crossing into hostile territory.   I might exhibit a similar compunction about taking fermentation at certain blue color taverns in the Rust Belt, despite the fact that many of the regulars would pretty much look like me, white seniors with European roots – except maybe they voted for Trump and I didn’t.   It’s not just politics; it’s a class thing.  I spent my first eleven years in a working class subdivision while my dad, employed at a defense plant, “broke through the line” into management.   We moved up and I went to college, then left my hometown in the dust.

Most of those I sat among that afternoon in Waldoboro probably hadn’t been to college – an opportunity with far reaching class consequences – but they’d remained rooted in their communities.  Being there, it was as if I’d been whisked back to some mothballed version of where I’d grown up in the fifties.   All the musty forms and rituals were intact.   The interior of the hall was a shrine to soldierly service.   All manner of war and military memorabilia displayed on walls and tables.  Mannequins outfitted full fig in uniforms of various epochs.  Two rows of chairs faced the stars and stripes and the flags of all the services that stood tall across the front of the room.   Stage-set on the left flank was an empty table with a single place setting and chair, the ubiquitous homage of the mainstream veteran service organizations to the MIAs.

One elderly lady saddled in beside me and sparkled brightly, “don’t worry, I won’t bite you.”  Was she in the Ladies Auxiliary linked to one of the co-sponsors, I asked?  She nodded yes without comment.   The chair of the local Historical Society stepped to the podium, asked the body to stand, then summoned the Color Guard, having carried two flags to the rear, to proceed forward and return the standards to their stanchions.  Two of the more senior men, costumed with bits and pieces of their old uniforms – both wore sergeant’s stripes – fairly dragged the heavy poles up the aisle.  “It weighs a ton,” one of them grumbled under his breath, but loud enough to make his audience, including me, smile and nod in sympathy.

Invited to remain standing for the Pledge of Allegiance, I did, of course, silent, my arms unpledgingly akimbo; but not the good citizens around me who earnestly recited these words by rote, and placed palms over hearts, or saluted, especially the lodge commanders ramrod straight whose squared fingers grazed the tips of their “piss cutters.”  Their drill sergeants would have finally been proud of them.   A man at a Hammond Organ struck up the national anthem, and I noticed not many folks were singing, likely having never fully committed Francis Scott Key’s lyrics, arcane, elegiac, to memory.   I joined in for America the Beautiful, a tune that glides more smoothly off the lips.  Then a reverend rose to pray, and did so for the next ten minutes.

Not a stem-winder by any means; the man was no orator.   He’d clearly pre-set his marks, and chockablock sought to hit them all.   I can track the gist of it from the hurried scribbles in my notebook, which from time to time drew a sidelong glance from my neighbor, quite inscrutable, but from a woman across the aisle a more openly curious look.  The alertness of a neighborhood watcher; no interference implied.  Meanwhile, the preacher gathered steam.  He thanked his God for “giving us these extra days” that had been denied to the fallen who “did not turn, did not flinch” from their ultimate sacrifice.  “When Americans go into battle,” he exclaimed, “they go to win for righteousness sake… to bring peace to those who are oppressed.”

“Might” was preferred, he emphasized, as the “implement of peace for all men of good will.”  Even now “the God of peace and love” rested his hand on the “boys and girls who defend our nation… as they go into battle… as volunteers… as Your Son went to the cross.”   Well, that part he has right.   Some of these young patriots are certainly being crucified.  Not only does the preacher fail to countenance such unpleasantries as the economic draft that has replaced conscription, making enlistment an attractive employment alternative over, say, a career in Walmart’s, or similar low wage employment available locally for youngsters with limited education and skills.  He hasn’t a clue that “the nearly two-thirds of the 91, 764 U.S. troops,” according to The Washington Post, “who were separated from the military… in a recent four-year period had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress…“

This is not a mark among the preacher’s mental bullet points.  It violates the paradigm of community pride toward the “high per capita amount of lives,” in the speaker’s awkward phrasing, “given to our nation from these two (Maine mid-coastal) counties, Knox and Lincoln.”  Hinging his body slowly to face the MIA table, he chose to end his reflections by speaking the painfully obvious, that “no one will ever sit there.  They won’t be able to come to the mess hall again,” sacred for GIs, he believed, as “another place of peace.”   It was by now abundantly clear that for this holder of a minor local pulpit peace was not the way to peace – as A.J. Muste once had taught us.   Peace was but a transitory moment at the chow hall along a path of military glory strewn with the bodies of the dead we had come here today to honor.  There would be no peace without war.

The head of the town Historical Society, a tiny woman of a certain age – and originally from New Jersey if memory serves – returned to the mic and cast a gleeful beam over the gathering, now chastened by the reminder of our survival.  She had taught English for many years at the Waldoboro High School, and possessed the forbearing eye that a principal displays before a school assembly.  We were now her classroom, and a brief lesson traced the origins of Decoration – now Memorial – Day from 1868, when widows organized to decorate the graves of soldiers killed in the Civil War.   Judging from the miniature flags that pop up at all the local cemeteries around this holiday, the widows are still at their task.

Many outsiders, and me in spades, develop a fascination for the local history that far outstrips the interest of the local natives.  And Waldoboro has a history unique to all of Maine.   A compete anomaly in a colony saturated with settlers from the British Isles, the frontier surrounding what became Waldoboro was peopled by Germans in the mid-18th century.  This is the stuff from which our emcee now draws to flatter the many ancestors of those Palatine pioneers who are present.   Although she is by far the best educated and most articulate of the several speakers who will yet address us, she too is a true believer, well-schooled in the revision of history at the service of civic indoctrination.  And so the vitae of the figure from the town’s colonial past chosen to reinforce the traditional values we are called here to witness and celebrate must be embellished by urban myth, which I cite to justify my dangling epitaph above.

Conrad Heyer did indeed have a storied life.  His fame rested to some degree on longevity.  Born in the middle of the 18th century during the so-called Indian Wars, he was well over a hundred when he died in the middle of 19th on the brink of the Civil War.   Heyer was therefore one of the last of the town’s original German speakers, and a man whose piety history records as a lifelong congregant and choir member of the Lutheran Meeting House, a majestic relic of colonial post and beam construction, now open to tourists.   Multitudes from Waldoboro and the surrounding communities turned out for the public funeral when he was buried there.  Heyer was a small farmer, and poor like most of his neighbors; late in life he received a revolutionary war pension, a then “princely sum” of $8 a month.

Heyer is justly renowned for having rushed to the Cambridge encampment where Washington had taken command of the continentals in the battle for Boston in 1775.   He may or may not have been part of the troop movement that crossed the Delaware to fall upon the Hessians in Trenton, but there appears no doubt that Heyer did suffer the deprivations of winter at Valley Forge.  Out of this heroic saga, our teacher spins an even more pleasing tale that jumps the historical rails, promoting Conrad Heyer, along with other nameless Waldoboro men, to a place of honor in Washington’s personal guard.  History has otherwise chosen to remain silent on this detail.  But no military glory can be over-gilded.  And you can bet the endorsement of history on such matters is irrelevant, and that the legend of Heyer at Washington’s side is widely credited here.  This reminds me of my mother telling us our family had a baron in the old country.  When I deliver my own lecture on Waldoboro at our local library, I will set the record straight, and may the letters to the editor in our county rag bristle with outraged rejoinders.  I digress.

The mic was passed among a short parade of officers of the Legion and the VFW to tell us of their advocacy in the legislature on behalf of veteran entitlements, and health issues like Agent Orange and Gulf War syndrome, the bread and butter mission of these service organizations.  We learned when the local posts were founded, and who they were named for, inevitably men – relatives, boyhood friends, classmates for some – who’d not come home with the rest.  There was a bit of nostalgia in one origin story about a time when “we could still hold a turkey shoot [a marksmanship contest] in someone’s backyard.  Imagine all the red tape we’d have to go through today?” the man bemoaned with an obligatory head shake.  This is the ruefulness of the anachronistic that glues the likes of Trump and our Tea Party governor LePage to their bases.

One commander’s comments had been written by committee, the Historical Society maven happily confided.  Teamwork was the essential ingredient behind the planning of this event, avowed the team leader.  Script in hand, as the man haltingly read other people’s words, I was reminded of my years as an adjunct at several satellite campuses of the University of Maine System where I taught College Writing, called Freshman Comp in my day.  I became well aware of the fact that, while my students could all read – but mostly didn’t – only a small minority were capable of writing beyond a string of simple declarative sentences that seldom added up to a coherent narrative.   I was shocked as perhaps only someone reared on the blank slate of suburbia and even modestly sheltered could be.

In this format of a mass meeting of the passive, a recognition ritual places a glimmer of the spotlight on those who’d performed military service, and when the names of the distinct services were called, a wave of random patterns of the seated and the standing rose and fell throughout the hall.  One woman, the only woman present who served, had done so in multiple branches, answering the call for the Coast Guard, the Navy and the Air Force.   Apparently her career had never been in doubt; only the uniform.   When our teacher-emcee announced, “this is the good part,” the organist thumped his keyboard and each service’s song was sung in turn.   This was her baby, and so the transplant from New Jersey had the last word, and enjoined her assembled neighbors “to keep the small town connectedness alive.”  Her spirit had been revved up by an inner ecstatic charge, and the podium now became her pulpit.  She offered thanks to “our Lord Jesus Christ, that we live in a country where we can sing and salute,” although I’m fairly certain this latter mark of obeisance is even permitted to followers of the Prophet.

Accordingly, suffused with the images of “dusty trails” and “caissons” and “the halls of Montezuma,” not to mention the militant “Jesus,” the crowd broke up, with some lingering at a refreshment table for a soft drink and a piece of celebratory cake.   I stood briefly nearby with a fellow Vietnam vet, a man who still bore the name of a colonial German ancestor.  He had come there in the same duds he would wear changing the oil on his truck – the concept of “dress up” is weak among working men in these parts.  Leaning on the cane that eased his war wound, he told me that his greatest regret about going to Vietnam was that he could no longer be a motorcycle racer when he came home.  He voiced his gripes about the VA and government waste.  “They’ve got research projects studying shrimp on a treadmill forgodsake,” he blurted out bewilderedly.  And naturally I had to ask him if he thought Vietnam was worth it.  “We shouldn’t have been over there,” he mused, but he was “glad to have done his duty,” the default sentiment in this gathering I reckon.

Among those for whom the concept of class is not taboo, the moral of this tale should be obvious.  But I can provide a more explicit political context that illustrates the class divide I experienced so viscerally at this Memorial Day event.  Up the road near a town several lumens shinier than Waldoboro, I’d been attending meetings of the Indivisibles, the movement emerging from the Democratic Party to fight the Trump agenda.   I asked a woman in the group’s leadership circle what in the Indivisibles’ program is oriented toward detaching low income constituencies — among whom I clearly identify our militarized veteran neighbors of Waldoboro – from Trump’s base in the upcoming electoral cycle.   She paused momentarily perplexed.   What she finally managed, breaking off our contact with a dismissive wave, was that the Indivisibles were only intent on mobilizing their own base, not engaging with Trump’s.

The Indivisibles have done some good things around here; but the blind spot in this response did not surprise me.  Nothing I’ve heard at these meetings comes close to examining, much less challenging the neo-liberal tenets of corporate rule.  Stunningly absent from our group’s deliberations or actions on “priority issues” – environment, immigration, LBGTQ, Donald’s tax returns, Russiagate – is any attention whatsoever to economic policy.   Narrow indivisibleism sets no priority to challenge the bloated Democratic sanctioned defense budget as the most obvious source of funding [along with taxing the wealthy] to support social programs that would benefit the alienated working class.   Of U.S. endless wars and the military’s imperial footprint across the globe, likewise nothing is spoken.

Let’s face it.  Over a continuum spanning two generations, it’s not the working class that’s abandoned the Democratic Party; it’s the other way around.  Until something dramatic stirs in the body politic that cements an electoral majority to a progressive agenda, for many Memorial Days to come we will find the Trump-inclined patriots in their veterans lodge hall nurturing the ideas and practices that infuriate their liberal “betters” up the road,  and still clinging to their guns and religion.

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Michael Uhl is the author of  Vietnam Awakening

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