The flower petals fall gracefully to the river below. The Souris river is running faster than usual this spring, but still the vibrant rose petals begin their trip down the river. It’s my first Memorial day in Minot and all I have is a sheet of paper from my news director with an address and very cryptic notes about there being a Memorial Day ceremony. I was standing next to a lady who had a very distant gaze. No emotion at first, and then the tears began to flow slowly down her cheek. “My brother, he lost his life at sea.” I was honored that she felt safe enough relating the story of how her brother had gone to war, with the U.S. Navy, right after Pearl Harbor.
She told me “The rose petals are dropped from the 6th Street bridge, now called the Memorial Bridge, in honor of those who lost their life at sea. By luck, I shouldered my camera in time to turn and catch a young man playing taps. The notes rang through the valley, and soon I found myself also tearing up. With the lady at the bridge, I shared that my Dad was a sailor who loved the sea but ended up in Guam for the purpose of occupying the island and cleaning up what was once a major Japanese base. Our conversation ended with a short hug and a reminder that Memorial Day services were to be held at Rosehill Cemetery, near the veteran’s portion of the cemetery at 10 AM. I assured her I would be there. I quickly checked my notes, not on my assignment sheet, but I would be there.
During my tenure as a news photographer, I made it a point to volunteer to work Memorial Day. My travels took me to small towns all over central and northwestern North Dakota. I watched as Canadian and American veterans marched to the border between Canada and the United States just north of Mohall. They joined together to honor those who gave it all for their countries. Each and every one of these services were special, no matter where the service was held.
In my early years in Minot, just after graduation from college, it was WWII vets that were the honor guards, and there were large crowds, even in the small towns. Time passed by and I watched as my father in law, a WWII vet, was a part of the VFW Honor Guard in Minot. I also had the honor of having all 3 of my sons as part of a Boy Scout Honor Guard and later my youngest son would take his turn playing taps at several ceremonies. Like the lady at the bridge in my first Minot ceremony, the tears would flow each time my son would hit those first haunting notes.
Then came one of those one of those defining moments in time. At a mid 90’s Memorial Day service, I was focused on my Boy Scout Honor Guard, as a Scoutmaster would do. The VFW honor guard had led the parade of flags into Rosehill Cemetery followed now by the Viet Nam era vets. It shouldn’t be unusual that those Viet Nam, and Korean Conflict vets, have joined the parade on this Memorial Day. A quick glance would reveal that a Viet Nam vet from my hometown of Maddock, North Dakota, was carrying the American flag. Steven Williams had graduated from Maddock High School in 1969. He and a couple of his buddies had been drafted. In a small town the conversation would often turn to those “kids” that were serving their country in Viet Nam. The towns of Maddock and Esmond were shaken when news of young men who had lost their lives in battle was delivered to parents back home.
Steve had survived his time in Viet Nam, as did his buddies. There was a collective sigh of relief when they all returned home. To see Steve, in his Viet Nam battlefield garb, carrying the American flag, took me back to when he was in high school. Soon, these Viet Nam vets would take the place of the WWI vets leading he parade. I was saddened to see Steve’s obituary in the Minot Daily News just a few months later.
And then would come those who served in Desert Storm and they would take the place of the WWII, Korean and Viet Nam vets, receiving the honor and recognition on Memorial Day. Or should it be the other way around. These Desert Storm vets took their turn honoring the many veterans who had passed before them. Now it was their turn to make sure that Memorial Day, and the ceremonies that honored those who died in the line of service, continued on.
Did I make it to the Memorial Day service at Rosehill Cemetery in 1977? The answer is yes. I was there, because it didn’t matter what it said on my assignment sheet, the story for that day, Memorial Day, 1977, was at The 6th Street Bridge and at Rosehill cemetery, and in all of those other communities across America who pause, albeit on a 3-day weekend, to honor those who gave their lives in service to their country.
As kids there really wasn’t any question about Memorial Day. We were there because it’s more than a 3-day weekend.