My mother was wearing the stars-and-stripes-themed shoes that my wife and I had given her for Mother’s Day this year. It was Monday morning, Memorial Day, and my mom and I were walking to American Legion Post 162 in my hometown of Graettinger, Iowa.
I had not packed any red, white or blue apparel before driving to my mom’s house on Sunday evening. My clothes were adorned by a couple Nike swooshes as we sauntered the two blocks “uptown” to the annual Memorial Day ceremony.
That was the beginning of a Memorial Day that ended when I returned home to the Twin Cities on Monday evening. Between that stroll to the morning ceremony and my arrival in my own driveway were 165 miles of mostly Minnesota blacktop, an inordinate amount of orange traffic cones, enthusiastic crowds of softball fans and a bounty of stars and stripes.
When Minnesotans ask about my hometown, my reply is always the same: “If you know where Fairmont and Jackson are, it’s about 30 minutes south from there.” So yes, I am a proud native of Iowa … who grew up watching the Vikings on television and taking summer trips to see the Twins at Metropolitan Stadium. Our eighth-grade class trip was classic 1970s Twin Cities: Bus ride to the Como Zoo, trip to the top of the IDS Tower, evening performance of the Ice Capades at the Met Center and late-night bus ride home.
The Monday morning ceremony (pictured) in my little hometown was touching. High school band and choir kids performed patriotic tunes, the World War I poem “In Flanders Fields” was read by a student (a duty I performed at this ceremony when I was in high school), prayers were offered, a rifle salute rang out and “Taps” was played. The main reason for the gathering, of course, was remembering those who gave their lives in defense of our country; several men from my town were killed during wartime. But all our veterans are recognized at this ceremony with the reading of their names.
The list began with several Civil War veterans, followed by those who served in the Spanish-American War in 1898. The bulk of the names came from the two World Wars, and they were followed by those who served in Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan.
My dad, who served a non-combat role in the Navy and died a year and a half ago at 87, was near the end of the list of World War II veterans. The final name on the list belonged to my wife’s uncle Laurence (I wrote about him on April 14, shortly after he died).
One of the names from the Gulf War list belonged to a boy I grew up with. He served in the Army’s 82nd Airborne. After he took his own life in 2008, his obituary included this passage: “He enjoyed fishing, hunting, golfing and the anticipation of a Minnesota Viking football game.”
After the ceremony ended, Mom and I walked back home, swatting at gnats that had made an unceremonious entrance in the warm windless sunshine. I headed out of town, driving due north to the state line. I slowed down for pedestrians in downtown Sherburn before making my first visit to the little town of Trimont, one of the newest communities in Minnesota. Trimont was formed in 1959 when the twin villages of Triumph and Monterey merged.
Then came Madelia, St. James, Lake Crystal and finally North Mankato, where three different softball sections were playing tournament games. As I pulled into a parking lot at spectacular Caswell Park – home of the state tournament June 9-10 – I rolled down the car window and heard magical sounds coming from all six fields. The clang of metal bat belting the ball, crowds roaring, teammates yelling encouragement. Bliss.
Most folks were dressed in their school’s colors but some wore red, white and blue. Fans sat in lawn chairs under shade trees or umbrellas to block the bright sun while braver souls slathered on sunscreen and watched from the metal bleachers. Babies nodded off in strollers and athletes applied fresh eye black to their cheeks, which served a dual purpose of hiding the red and fighting the glare.
The scene was Memorial Day perfection: Americans watching kids play ball. Grandparents shuffled along, some with walkers and canes, in order to reach the field where their grandkids were playing. Little kids dug in the playground sand or played catch with each other. A dad tossed a small football to his son as they stood in the thick green grass beyond an outfield fence. Pizza, hot dogs and nachos sailed through concession windows. For a while I sat next to a grandma and was thrilled to see that she too was spitting sunflower seeds.
A winding path home from North Mankato (warning: Highway 169 between Mankato and St. Peter is closed for road work) took me through Eagle Lake, Madison Lake, Elysian, Waterville, Morristown and Faribault, where I picked up northbound Interstate 35. Rows of flags stood sentry along the highway in Elysian, people in kayaks and canoes paddled leisurely on quiet streams as cottonwood seeds floated in the air on their wispy sails. Kids rode their bikes, adults mowed their lawns.
Thank you, veterans, for giving us this day.
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 714
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 11,593