28 May 2012

A Memorial Day Lesson in Citizenship

I am fairly sure that it was 1970. A lifetime ago. Two generations ago. Somewhat like today, America was an insanely divided culture, with very different understandings of "reality" embraced by two sides of a political divide. The Vietnam War, Civil Rights, the rights of women, even the ways to become intoxicated, had split the society down the middle - even if that middle was far to the left of today's divide. (The "right" then - represented by President Richard Nixon - believed in price controls, environmental protection, even a path toward universal healthcare. It was more akin to European "Christian Democrats" than the lunatic fringe the US Republican Party has become today.)

New Rochelle's "The Mall" was still the new hangout in 1970, with blacklight posters
and "paraphernalia" available at "World Imports" on the lower level.
I was a young adolescent. My father was not yet 50. New Rochelle, New York was 282. Memorial Day, begun as "Decoration Day," a name my Da continued to use, was 105, more or less. The war veteran's association, the American Legion, was 51. And a collision was about to occur.

My father was not a politician, but he was what I would describe as "a citizen." He did not just always vote, he didn't just always bring his children into the voting booth in the back of the old Church Street fire headquarters, he didn't just work for candidates - knocking on doors, dragging us kids into passing out campaign literature - but he actively engaged in the debates of the day throughout the year.

Eamon deValera's "war of choice" - the Irish Civil War
disgusted my father as much as Vietnam
He was also deeply opposed to what might be called "state violence." He hated war, police violence, the death penalty. Even wars he "supported" - World War II in which he served, The Anglo-Irish War, Israel's fight for independence from Britain, Algeria's from France, he found morally horrific. "Wars of choice," whether begun to Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam or Eamon deValera in Ireland, were, in his mind, the ultimate sin.

"I've been in a war that had to be fought," he'd say, "and even that did more damage to the world than anyone could imagine." He'd been with Patton, at the Normandy breakout, at Metz, in the rush to relieve Bastogne, crossing the Rhine, liberating Dachau, and pushing all the way to Plsn in (then) Czechoslovakia.  He had lifetime leg problems are being hurt, he had nightmares until he died.

But more. He was the son of a World War I veteran, a combat engineer who struggled with what we'd now call PTSD and the scarred lungs of a gas attack victim until he died - at his own hand.

So, unlike the stereotype of the WWII "GI" being "pro-war" in the 1960s, my Da was the opposite - intensely, vocally, politically against US involvement in Vietnam. And he was particularly dismissive of the crowd which hung out at the American Legion Hall across from our home, who, in his words, "had sat back in the safety of the States or in England during their war and now wanted to send kids to die."

Whether that was either true or fair or neither, I really don't know. He knew many of them, so, it might have been true, though, being luckier in assignment than my father had been is really no vice.

Either way, they waved American flags while we went to hear Bobby Kennedy, Gene McCarthy, and Eldridge Cleaver. New Rochelle, like most of America, was split.

Not a lot has changed in this view, looking north on North Avenue, except
for the Trump Tower in the distance, and the fact that the big supermarket
across from the Legion Hall has been replaced by a Latter Day Saints Church.
Which brings me back to Memorial Day, and the Memorial Day Parade which traditionally began outside my bedroom window, at the Legion Hall. Two controversies erupted in the days before the parade: First, the Vietnam Veterans Against the War asked to march. Second, the high school band decided to wear black armbands in the parade. In my house, these were easy issues to decide - free speech and opposition to the war, but elsewhere it seemed far more complicated.

The American Legion, like many right-wing organizations "devoted to America," was not particularly inclined to accept the constitutional right to political expression in public places. They said that the parade was something they organized, and thus they could decide who would be in it. The City of New Rochelle took a different view, noting that this was a public event, on public streets, involving the work of many public employees, and as a "public space," was open to all.

And so Memorial Day came. My mother advocated for watching from the windows. My father would have none of this, and led us out into the fray. He was going to march with the Veterans Against the War, and he wanted us by his side. "Citizenship means nothing without expression or risk," a Jesuit priest once told me, and my father was going to do both.

The Legion had placed the two groups they didn't want at the end of the parade, and as the parade began, they unfurled a huge banner reading "End of Parade" right in front of the New Rochelle High School Band - an amusing precursor to "Mission Accomplished" in my mind. But they also had bigger plans. As the band began to move, Legioneers drove cars from both their parking lot and the Daitch Shopwell supermarket lot into the band to block them. Meanwhile a crowd of overweight middle age guys wearing funny hats came out on the Legion Hall steps to curse at the band and Vietnam vets.

Which all led my family into action. One of my sisters climbed onto the hood of one of the cars, stomping the paint, denting it, which led the band to simply walk over the vehicles. My father led a bunch of vets 25 years younger than himself in a charge up the steps of the Legion Hall, demanding to know what battles those guys had served in. I tried to pull him away, to prevent the inevitable fight, and might have been just slightly successful. A few punches thrown. None landed.

much quieter now, Memorial Day 2012,
the parade route has reversed...
A few cars messed up - deservedly I'd say - but the parade, the whole parade, went on. Even if it was the last Memorial Day Parade in town for about 15 years. The war would drag on for another five years. My father would keep hating wars - from Ronald Reagan's bizarre attack on a Medical School in Grenada to George H.W. Bush's first Gulf War.

So, what was the lesson? We need to be engaged. We need to be active. We cannot let others silence us. There are things worth fighting for, including Justice and Peace. But most things are not worth fighting about. There are better ways. And we teach our children to be engaged/active citizens, we teach them about rights and responsibilities, or we do something else. It is a choice. A choice with huge consequences.

Public service, in all its forms, is a gift we give to ourselves. It is humanity at its best, while working at a place like Bain Capital is humanity at its worst. One builds the public sphere, honors our human society. The other privatizes what should be shared, and shatters our social bonds.

Mary and Catherine Cronin's father
rescues a fellow firefighter
in the photo above.
My family's public service, from the military service of my great-grandfather, grandfather, and father, to my police work or work in other public services, is one kind. The kind of service which Mary Cronin wrote about in a story about her father which helped inspire this.

But there are other ways of building our public spaces... through commitment, and passion, and yes... risk. And sometimes even by willing to act a bit crazy in the defense of our society, and what it could, and should be.

That day in 1970 my Da showed his passion, his beliefs, his commitment, and he carried his children with him into action. The things I have done for our shared world since, owe a great deal to that Memorial Day.

Now, as I read Michael D. Higgins brilliant bookon our "public spaces," I recall those who have taught us the right things to do, on the most intimate levels.

And I say thanks.

- Ira Socol

1 comment:

catherinecronin said...

And I say thanks, Ira. Thanks for connecting with Mary and me, and for sharing some of our dad's life. And thanks for sharing your story about a powerful moment in American history, and your own amazing father. It reminded me of a Memorial Day in Rochester, New York in the early 1980s, when Vietnam Veterans Against the War marched against the organisers original wishes -- and in complete, dignified silence as onlookers applauded. It's something I'll never forget. These moments, as much as the sacrifices made by your father and grandfather, and ours, formed (and are still forming) our country. And, of course, our inspirational President here in Ireland continues to pull that thread through history and into the future. Viva Michael D. Higgins! Thanks, Ira, for writing so beautifully to help remind us all of this.