Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Memorial Day

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        I used to lead the town parade,
       Counting cadence through the streets.
       Vets saluting, people clapping,
       Children shifting feet in cool, damp grass.
       Memorial Day at Union gravesites….

Growing up in the Muscanetcong Mountains of northwestern New Jersey in the late 50s-early 60s, as a Brownie and Girl Scout, I marched, among others, in the Memorial Day parades. Mother figured out that if we wanted to win any marching awards, we’d have to all be in step with each other, even if we always went last. She solved that by having me, the smallest girl in the troop, count cadence so everybody’d be in step with me. It worked, but we still didn’t win. So she asked the judges why.

“Your little girls are always skipping out of line,” she was told.

She replied, “Of course they are! They’re trying to avoid stepping in the manure from the horse units that go behind the Boy Scouts and in front of the tanks. Flattened manure is still manure!”

Billy Yank, Civil War Statue rebuilt at
5 Corners, Hackettstown, NJ, 2001
So, to be fair, we were moved--up to the beginning of the parade. Part of the color-guard, I was in the very front, able to look right down Main Street, empty and white in May sunshine, with crowds of people lined up on the sidewalks in front of the stores as I chanted, “Left! Right! Left! Left, left, right, left!” over and over until the words turned to meaningless mush in my mouth, setting the rhythm until we were firmly embedded in it, our footsteps sounding like one girl instead of twenty, until we got to the five corners, where Billy Yank the Civil War statue had stood until he was broken by road-workers in 1924. We swung onto Mountain Avenue, glad of it’s leafy shade, gradually slowing to allow for the slope down, down to the flats, to where we turned left through the triumphal arch of the never-closed gates of Union Cemetary. It was almost an effort to call out, “Br-r-reak step!” so that as we crossed the bridge over the river, it wouldn’t collapse under us. Then the right turn past the grandstand, down to wait between it and the river, peeling off the color-guard to stand with the other, massing flagbearers and their guards, while the other units followed our Scouts into line, and the crowd straggled down to stand on the road or find places among the graves, up on the hill.

Then the flags dipped while the clergyman whose turn it was that year  said the Invocation, and rose while we pledged allegiance. I tried not to fidget while officials recited speeches, and by the time we sang to the bands’ music, my feet were drying from the dewy grass. Then the Benediction was said, and the best moment had finally arrived.

Lou Petty stood out in front of God and everybody in his Blue Ridge Drum & Bugle Corps uniform, and began to play “Taps”, pausing after each phrase. Day is done, he would play, and soft and clear would come a fainter, Day is done. People thought it was an echo from the Muscanetcong hills that guard our valley, but it was really either Jim Ball, who’d lost an ear in World War II, or my dad, up on the hill, carefully and perfectly matching Lou.

And just as Lou began the first few notes, the town’s oldest veteran would release a big flat float covered with flowers on the river. Slowly, slowly, it would glide on the current until, just as the final notes of the echo were played, it would disappear around a bend in the river, never to be seen again….

I would come back from my vague dreams and resolutions of a patriotic future, surreptiously wipe my tearing eyes, and we would reform and march back to Bell’s Lane, over to slog up the lower Washington Street hill to the grade school playground and ice cream, before the first cookouts of the season.



     All the speeches, families gather,
    “Taps” echoes in the circling hills.
     Memorial Day in Union gravesites,
     Memorial Day at the river…

In 1968, I was almost nineteen, home from my first year of college. My father said that if I wanted to go back to school in the fall, I’d have to get a summer job—not easy to find in a small town with no bus service, if you don’t have a car.

The first week, I had no luck. On the next Monday, I interviewed at a factory at the edge of town. I didn’t know what they did, but I wanted to work.

Tuesday morning at 6 am, wearing cotton clothes and sneakers as instructed, I rode my bike to work. It was a munitions factory that made ammunition and booby traps for the Vietnam war. All day in a small shed with a tin roof, I tamped gunpowder into cartridges about an inch in diameter with a rubber mallet.

The next day I was taken to a big room, filled with 70-80 women, all of us sitting at long, grounded metal tables. They were all Slovak and Puerto Rican, whose only skills were courage and determination. Mrs. Ricccici was the only one I knew; she said my mother was crazy to let me work there. She was there so her daughter, one of my high school classmates, would never have to be.

Maria, the most beautiful girl my age I had ever seen, showed me what to do. In front of us were from one to four or five wooden slotted trays. In each round slot was one of the large cartridges I had worked on the day before, now fitted out with a long match-head fuse. I was warned not to let them get tangled. All we had to do was paste a round circle of cardboard on the end of each cartridge, insert it inside a larger cardboard cylinder, and put it back in the slot. There were about fifty on each tray.

Because she had done this since she dropped out of school at sixteen, Maria had five trays to my one. She chattered happily about saving for a dress for the Miss Budd Lake Beauty Pageant, and giving mi hermano bueno, her good brother, the money for a new rifle.

I said, “But I thought the first prize was a scholarship for college.”

She laughed. “I don’t want to win first! Or even second, just third. That’s the one with the cash prize. I’m not a girl, I’m a woman; I work to help my family.”

Then she got quiet, and I concentrated on what I was doing for a long time.

Until, under the other women’s chatter in three languages, I heard her catch her breath, next to me.

Turning my head, I saw that she had hit a defective one, and her fuses had gotten tangled together, gowning her in gold and orange….flames were shooting toward the blackened ceiling. For the first time in my life, I smelled the sweet-sick smell of burning human flesh.

I didn’t know what to do.

I yelled, “Fire!”

That was when I found out what they had for such emergencies: two women, at the ends of the tables, jumped up, ran to the corners, picked up a bucket of water, and ran back, sloshing, throwing what was left over Maria.

She never screamed.

Our little town didn’t have a hospital then, so they called the Rescue Squad to come drive her over the hills to Newton Hospital about fifteen miles away.

What seemed to add to the horror was that my hands never stopped working, like they were part of a machine. At lunchtime, I ate, and threw up in the grass by the fence. Then I went back to work until quitting time.

The next morning, in hushed voices, the other women spoke briefly of what had happened at the hospital.They were able to save her eyes, but took off one of her arms at the elbow, and the other at the shoulder. Her family didn’t have any health insurance; there would be no plastic surgery or much extended care for her.

I could not talk about this for three years, to anyone.

The accident happened on Wednesday. I had gone to work on Thursday. Friday morning, I came downstairs at 5 am to eat my breakfast before getting my bike. To my surprise, Daddy was sitting in his chair in the living-room, waiting for me. He was working the 3 to midnight shift that week, so he should have been still asleep like Mother. He handed me the local weekly paper, and pointed. I saw a picture, black and white, newspaper-grainy, but you could still make out Maria—and me, sitting next to her. Apparently, the town photographer had stopped in to ask our boss about a bowling tournament, and was able to snap it without anyone noticing or stopping him.

“That’s you, isn’t it?” Daddy asked sternly.

I nodded.

“Did you tell your mother?”

I shook my head.

He pointed to the phone in the dining-room. “Call ‘em up. You’re quitting.”

That stirred me into speech. “But Daddy, I have to earn the money for school!”

“I don’t care if you never set foot in another classroom! It’s not worth your getting killed or hurt! No, Honey, we’ll find another way for you to go, I promise. But you are not working there again. Call!”

Secretly relieved, I called and then went up to bed, thinking about all the women who would not quit. But I was still a girl, with more options, even if I didn’t know yet what they were.

The next week, Mother got me a job waitressing at the Welsh Farm Country Shops that was just opening, a subsidiary of the dairy she worked for, and I did that for the next several months, along with other things I managed to pick up. Every week or so, I’d go visit Maria.

About a week before I was due to go back to school, her teenaged brother came to see me; we stood out on the front porch for a few minutes. His eyes were old in a young face. “I wanted to tell you,” he said. “Last night, Maria somehow got my old rifle. I forgot to unload it last time. She’s…she’s not in pain anymore. Thank you for coming to see her. Nobody else did. I gotta go.” He walked away..

This whole thing had an impact on me. I thought a lot about War, and Glory, and Service. Slow as I was, I think altogether I helped make over 1,000 cartridges to help kill and maim people I’d never even met, and who, to quote Mark Twain, never hurt me or anyone I knew.. .

I have struggled with this; I cannot feel the same way as I did when I marched as a young girl. And while I cannot speak for anyone else, I concluded that I need to consider carefully what I believe, and what I think and what I do. It was one of the reasons why I became a convinced Quaker the following year.

I pray for women like Maria, especially every Memorial Day, who are among those we never pay much attention to, who serve in the shadows .



     It’s many a year since been back there,
     Many a year since I’ve been home.
     Memorial Day at Union gravesides,
     Memorial Day at the river,
     Floating flowers, and the river’s sun-bright waves
          Floating flowers, and the river’s sun-bright waves

10 comments:

  1. what a lovely story, Barra.
    thank you so much for sharing it with us.

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  2. What a moving and beautifully written story, Barra./Faith S.

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  3. Barra, I am deeply touched by this blog. Thank you for sharing it.

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  4. wow, what a story! We make so much of the brave soldiers, but we never hear about those making the munitions, and what harm it can cause them also. Thank you for sharing!

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  5. Barra, this is a moving, piercing story, deeply touching to the core, and perfectly told. Thank you for sharing.
    Kathy, fellow harper, in Albuquerue, NM

    ReplyDelete

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