By Michael Mentzer
A Memorial Day observance has the distinction of being a sacred time set aside to “solemnly celebrate” the sacrifices of men and women who died for who and what they believed in.
It could have been the concept of freedom or a way of life or the nation of their birth or their family or maybe for those with whom they served. It was what truly mattered to them as individuals.
At first glance, “solemnly celebrate” seems like a contradiction of terms. On Memorial Day, though, the words work well together.
The annual Memorial Day Parade in Fond du Lac will begin at 10 a.m. Monday, May 26, at the corner of Guindon Boulevard and South Main Street. It will move north on Main Street to Veterans Park and culminate with a vigil and a program.
Local residents are encouraged to line the parade route to honor veterans who have made the ultimate sacrifice in service to their nation.
In fact, it’s also an appropriate time to honor all those who have served in the nation’s best interests throughout its history from the Revolutionary War era through today.
It should be noted also that Memorial Day will be observed in communities throughout our area with parades, vigils, church services and private moments at countless graves where tiny American flags will accent each marker.
It’s virtually impossible not to be touched emotionally in some way when watching Memorial Day parades, standing with the families of fallen soldiers, listening to stories of military sacrifice and heroism, and trying to comprehend the sacrifices that have been made to preserve our freedom and way of life.
I realize there was a time when Memorial Day for me was a three-day weekend and the doorway to summer and not much more than that.
At some point along the way the day became much more important and meaningful to me personally. It certainly was an evolutionary process.
I remember a time when I would watch old men (or at least they seemed old to me then) take off their hats and sometimes salute or applaud as the flag passed by or the car with the Gold Star Mothers approached their vantage point.
I understand now. I feel the need to participate. I see the reason to “solemnly celebrate.”
A time for respect
It’s much easier for me today to understand why Memorial Day observances are not places for parade floats to advertise products or services, or political parties or politicians to wage campaigns or promote themselves.
It’s certainly not a time to throw candy or hand out coupons to people along the parade route.
There is a time for politicians, campaigns, advertising, wearing clown costumes and pitching candy to children. The Memorial Day Parade is not one of those occasions.
Memorial Day affords a much higher calling. We all owe a debt of gratitude. We all have a personal list of those we owe but can never really repay.
And for those who don’t have a personal list, the chances are great they will have that list someday. Freedom and national defense are preserved with the greatest of sacrifices. Those sacrifices eventually touch everyone.
The list of people who come to my mind on Memorial Day grows longer every year. Here are some on my list this year. I’ll write of others another time.
My Dad and uncle
It struck me while thinking of whom to mention that I’ve never written about my own father and his brother.
My dad was Phil and his brother was Bob. Both passed many years ago. My dad was a flight tower operator, and I remember his rare stories about the many close calls and plane crashes he witnessed.
Like most of the men of his World War II generation, he didn’t talk much about his war experiences but he did teach us a number of funny wartime songs.
He was proud of his brother, a machine gunner with Gen. George Patton’s Army and a veteran of the bloody Battle of the Bulge.
I remember Dad talking about Uncle Bob and saying, “He was never the same after the war.” And as a result, his family wasn’t either.
Fond du Lac native Jim Megellas is a true combat hero of World War II.
He absolutely deserves the Medal of Honor for his service as a paratrooper and combat leader in the European Theater.
He observed his 97th birthday in March and despite his age he continues to travel and speak on behalf of U.S. soldiers at home and overseas.
His nomination for the Medal of Honor was denied again recently despite the leadership efforts of Jim Neumann of Fond du Lac and a local committee that pressed for long-overdue recognition for Megellas.
In an effort to right past oversights, the military has recommended the awarding of Medals of Honor to several veterans of ethnic minorities who served in World War II and Korea.
It seems ironic that Megellas, the son of Greek immigrants who moved to Fond du Lac to take jobs in the Rueping tannery, has been denied the Medal of Honor despite his record of exceptional valor.
Paul and Gus
I never met Paul Guelig but I had the honor of writing about him when his dog tags were found in Vietnam several years ago.
Paul is a member of my generation and I feel a tie to him and many more like him who never received the gratitude they deserved because they served during what has been described as an “unpopular war.”
Paul, a 1969 graduate of Horace Mann High School in North Fond du Lac, was killed April 24, 1970 by a Vietcong rifle shot while trying to drag a fellow Marine to safety.
I met his parents, Harold and Mary, after Paul’s dog tags were sent home to them 34 years after his death.
When I think of Paul, I remember Gus Kocos, a Korean War veteran who was Paul’s teacher and mentor. A longtime Fond du Lac resident, Gus died in January of 2009.
The best real-life education I’ve ever received occurred when I was a UW-Madison student working at Oscar Mayer to pay my tuition and make financial ends meet.
At the height of the Vietnam War, I worked with veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam, with guys who were waiting to be drafted and with guys who wanted no part of military service.
I remember heated arguments and spellbinding war stories from those days.
I was struck by the fact that veterans were intensely proud to serve and felt it was their duty to do so. But beyond that fact, I was impressed by their loyalty to each other and the units in which they served.
I remember one of them saying, “You fight for the people you’re with. They are your family.”
I think my perception of Memorial Day changed distinctly after I got to know Hattie and Bob Culver.
An old wire-and-white-picket fence divided a flower garden at the ends of our respective backyards — ours on West 13th Street, theirs on Howard Avenue.
We talked often at the back fence. Our half-century difference in age didn’t matter.
Hattie and Bob had many “World War I era friends and they were active all their adult lives in veterans’ events, especially Veterans Day and Memorial Day activities. They enlightened us in a unique way.
When we moved from our home in 1984, Hattie insisted that we take with us to our new home a cutting from the roots of her ancient rose bush that grew along the fence. The rose bush was a descendant of the rose canes that had grown on her Town of Friendship home when she was a girl prior to World War I.
Hattie and Bob have been gone for nearly 30 years, but each year without fail Hattie’s yellow roses burst forth in time for Memorial Day at two locations in our backyard.
Known with reverence at our house as Hattie’s roses, they’ve become symbolic of the day.
The thorns in the tangle of rose canes are endless and as sharp as needles. Leather gloves are no match for them and they inflict pain and draw blood.
But the cascades of bright yellow blooms fill the calm atmosphere of late May evenings with an unforgettable fragrance.
The relentless thorns, the fragile roses and the delicate fragrance provide a symbolic perspective for the pain and poignancy of a soldier’s ultimate sacrifice for others.
The POW on Main Street
I’ve written about this husband and wife a number of times. They are now an indelible image in my memory.
Years ago, I remember complaining to my wife about the person who had selfishly parked his car on the street along the parade route even though there were “No Parking” signs everywhere.
At second glance I realized that the car had a POW license plate. In reality, it was the only vehicle along the parade route that deserved to be there.
We stood nearby. I was glad we did.
The man in his distinctive military veteran hat emerged slowly from the driver’s seat and stood tall and straight at the curb to salute the flag and fellow veterans time after time as they passed by.
His wife stood next to him.
They never smiled or waved. For them it obviously was a solemn celebration for reasons most of us could only imagine.
When the parade finally passed them by and police cars with flashing red and blue lights marked the end of the line, they returned to their car and drove slowly away in the direction from which they had come.
I looked for them each Memorial Day for the next few years but never saw them again.
I should have thanked them for their service when I had the chance.
Michael Mentzer, now retired after a 40-year newspaper career, writes a monthly column for Scene.