Memorial Day Reflections: May 2014
W. Lee Hansen
Out of respect for the many Americans who fought and died fighting this country’s wars, I am always drawn to attend Memorial Day events. These gatherings are especially meaningful for two reasons.
As a child I remember our Memorial Day family drives to a little cemetery located a mile north of the crossroads known as North Cape, located on Highway 45, about 20 miles west of Racine, where we lived. We made these trips to decorate the graves of my mother’s Norwegian father who as a young man settled there in the late 1850s and later her mother who arrived as a child from Sweden in 1869. These annual excursions excited us children because car trips in the late 1930s were a real luxury. While at the cemetery and before a brief outdoor service began, we placed flowers on the graves of our grandparents as well as our great grandparents who had died many years earlier.
Though Decoration Day, as it was then known, sought to commemorate the Civil War dead, it had become a national holiday to honor the dead, whether or not they had served in the military. If any Civil War dead lay buried in the North Cape cemetery, I don’t recall. Fortunately, our grandfather did not enlist in the Scandinavian (mostly Norwegian) Regiment, which suffered severe casualties, including its Norwegian commander, Colonel Heg, whose statue stands at the southeastern corner of the Capitol Square in Madison.
The other reason is to honor the many members of our families who served in the nation’s wars—World War I, World War II, and the Korean War. My Dad served in the Navy during World War I; two uncles fought with the 32nd Division in France. Sally’s father led an infantry company through the fierce fighting in France; two other uncles served, one of them a doctor who was gassed and died several years after the war’s end, by then married and the father of two small children.
Skipping to World War II, an older brother with the 34th Division was killed in Italy in 1943; several cousins served overseas, one of them in far-off China. On Sally’s side, her brother flew bombing missions over the Polesti oil fields, a cousin fought in the Battle of the Bulge, another cousin was killed when his B-17 was shot down over Germany, and still another cousin served in the Women’s Army Corps. Several other cousins and boyfriends/husbands of relatives also served.
On to the Korean War. My two younger brothers and I served in the army, though fortunately not in Korea. Several cousins also served, one of whom was killed fighting in Korea.
When I think of this country’s wars, these people are always in my mind. They deserve to be honored, both the living and the dead, and taking part in Memorial Day services is one small way of doing so.
I usually attend the Memorial Day events at the State Capitol building here in Madison. This year I decided to drive the 80 miles to North Cape and the old North Cape cemetery where the 7:45 a.m. service was scheduled. Arriving early, I took time to visit the graves of our ancestors. The worn gravestone of our great grandparents, the last of whom died a century ago, had been replaced a few years ago. The gravestone of our grandparents is so weathered that the inscriptions are difficult to make out; soon that gravestone will also have to be replaced. Then I wandered about the cemetery, noting the names of families my mother and grandmother frequently mentioned when they talked about the “old days” in North Cape.
The Memorial Day ceremony was not an elaborate one. The American Legion Honor Guard from nearby Waterford assembled along the front edge of the cemetery. They faced the assembled crowd of about 35 local people, ranging from small children to one ancient man who must surely have been a WWII veteran.
The ceremony began with the calling of the roll, the names of the probably 15 members who died in the past year. As each name was called out, the response was “Not Present.” The leader of the group then read from General John Logan’s 1868 Proclamation establishing Decoration Day to honor the Civil War dead. The Lutheran minister, from the Norwegian Lutheran Church (established in 1850) across the road, quoted from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and followed with a reading from the Bible. The color guard then presented arms and fired the customary salute. This was followed by the sound of “Taps” coming from two buglers, one with the honor guard and the other echoing the sound from some distance.
The ceremony proved to be very moving. As always, it left me misty-eyed. What a sad but still glorious day, to honor the many who died too soon.