American Times Connecticut: No place for the cynical

I USUALLY go into the office on Memorial Day. It has always been a depressing experience, the train into New York almost empty (and on a Sunday schedule too), midtown Manhattan deserted as if a germ bomb has been released and live pictures on CNN of Clinton the Commander-in-Chief biting his lower lip at the National Cemetery. So this year, I stayed at home and I did the holiday as it is meant to be done.

An English friend persuaded me. You have to see the parade, he said, because it showed something special about America, about how its communities still come out at least twice a year - the other occasion being the Fourth of July - and celebrate together. That doesn't happen in England. When does England get out? On Guy Fawkes', when it's dark so we don't have to see each other?

This observation caused argument in our household. What about street parties in London? Summer fetes? And that night when we all lit bonfires on hill tops that were beacons? And besides, isn't there something unpleasantly obligatory about these days of commemoration in America, even competitive? Our stars-and-stripes flag is bigger than the man's next door. (And he still hasn't mowed his lawn.) So let's not even get started on Americans and their cloying patriotism.

This is dangerous territory. You might legitimately also ask this: if the US is so great at nurturing togetherness and belonging, how come it is also so messed up? What kind of society produces tragedies such as the school shooting in Littleton, Colorado? It is a good question, and yet the community stuff is no fake. Nor are we just talking corny parades. I'm thinking, for instance, of last month's tornadoes in Oklahoma and how people who weren't hurt flocked to help those who were.

But let's stick with the corny. And with Bob and Cathy Riley, who by 9am on Monday had unfolded their garden chairs and planted themselves at a prime spot along the route of the Old Greenwich Memorial Day Parade, even though it wasn't due to start until ten. Bob, a first lieutenant, Signal Corps, in the Vietnam War, had army ribbons on his red polo shirt. His faded officer's cap rested on his lap. They would only be moving once their nine-year-old daughter had passed, marching with the Brownies.

Or Dotty Bella and her friend Josephine Burns, aged 64 and 56, who found the large chestnut next to the railway bridge afforded them excellent shade so long as they both sat on the very springy lower branch that was otherwise obscuring their view. Both were born in the town and couldn't remember how many Memorial Day parades they had seen. But they would never miss them.

It was Dotty who uttered the obvious cliche about Norman Rockwell and his evocations of heartland America. Blue sky, bunting, people passing out American flags, and Old Greenwich's sweet main street, with its neat shop fronts in clapperboard buildings. (Was it the moment, I wondered, to gently point out the other thing notable about the event: the absence of even one black face in the crowd?)

There weren't many in the parade Dotty and Bella didn't know. There was Dotty's tenant in the cab of an ambulance. And that little man with white hair was, apparently, our town's First Selectman. And all the other usual groups had their places: the Gardeners' Club of Old Greenwich (average age 70, if we are going to be polite), the girls of the North Mianus Twirlers with their revolving batons, the volunteers of our fire department, the Girl Scouts, the Lions Club, three marching bands, and on and on. I liked the two girls on their bikes towing the little red wagon with a fat white rabbit riding inside it.

Things have changed a bit over the years, concedes Dotty. "It's got more wealthy and preppier," for one. In the old days they let horses join the parade, "until one year one of them dropped a load and the little kids were next in line. Oh dear, wasn't that a mess."

After the parade came the sober bit in the small town park - reading out the names of townspeople who died in wars - and, of course, the patriotism. My son had his hand on his chest for the pledge of allegiance and knew the words of the national anthem. I had had enough, I admit, when a local doctor recited Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Please don't applaud, he said, but think about the meaning of the words. Thank goodness for the local eccentric, who every Sunday buzzes the town in his little stunt plane, doing loops and letting white smoke billow from his tail. Just as proceedings in the park were getting altogether too ponderous he chose to make a special Memorial Day appearance.

The parade over, we continued our Monday exactly as every good American is meant to on what is also considered the first true day of summer. We cooked out on our deck, we went for a walk on the beach and, late on, we caught a movie. (Never mind that it was Notting Hill and nothing more American).

We were not the only foreigners in town forsaking cynicism about goofy Americans and their rituals and instead giving in to the fun. "I have never," began another English friend we met at the parade, "seen so many British people waving the American flag." My son and I among them.

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