Honoring the flag on Memorial Day

Posted 6/3/21

Remember the Memorial Day parades that stepped off from the Hendricken parking lot on Oakland Beach Avenue, proceeded to West Shore Road and ended in front of Veterans High School? Some years, marchers stretched for what seemed to be the full parade

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Honoring the flag on Memorial Day


Remember the Memorial Day parades that stepped off from the Hendricken parking lot on Oakland Beach Avenue, proceeded to West Shore Road and ended in front of Veterans High School?

Some years, marchers stretched for what seemed to be the full parade route. The lineup included members of the National Guard both marching and riding in jeeps and armored vehicles, contingents from the American Legion Posts, convertibles with the Gold Star Mothers, the Army Reserves, vintage cars, big trucks with air horns blasting, dance studios, the Boy and Girl Scouts, fire trucks with sirens wailing and, naturally, the junior high and senior high school bands. In the lead were the uniformed police and firefighters, elected officials accompanied by our senior veterans.

It’s a reasonably long route with plenty of space for spectators. It wasn’t hard to find a couple of sidewalk squares you could claim as your own half way along the route. That changed the closer you got to the high school. A review stand on wheels was parked on the school lawn, decorated with red, white and blue bunting and a loudspeaker system that had its quirks.

Spectators spilled out on the street to get photos of family members and friends in the parade. There were ripples of applause and a buzz as people recognized friends either in the parade or among the spectators. After the fire trucks brought up the last of the marchers, one of the high school bands played the national anthem and there were speeches by the officials who were joined by veterans and Gold Star Mothers on the review stand. The firing of a salute and the playing of taps signaled the end of the formal observance. Yet many of those who marched and spectators lingered. There was soda and hotdogs at the canteen truck and there was beer if you found the right patriot.

The parade, run by the Warwick Veterans Council, was a tribute to our veterans and those who died serving this country. It was also an opening shot to summer.

Over the years, the number of marchers dwindled. Funding that paid for equipment rentals, post parade refreshments and stipends for the bands dried up. Members of the Veterans Council grew older. Younger veterans of the wars against terrorism didn’t step in. There was no new blood. Eventually, the parade was replaced by a wreath-laying at the Veterans Park at the school. It was a brief ceremony with a salute to the flag, a prayer and some comments. That was canceled last year because of COVID.

This year was different.

The weather set a somber tone. The ground was wet, as were the park benches. The sky was gray. It was cold for the final day of May, but, thankfully it wasn’t raining and the winds had subsided. More people were assembled at this Memorial Day ceremony than I’ve seen in the past five years.

There would be the laying of a wreath and much more.

Ward 6 Councilwoman Donna Travis offered a clue of what was to come as she handed out strips of red and white cloth. The strips, cut from American flags, were bleached by the sun and weather beaten. She told us to hold onto the strips of cloth and wait for the ceremony that was to follow remarks from elected officials, the national anthem and the placing of the wreath. Sal Caiozzo, commander of Chapter 9 of the Disabled War Veterans, and Rep. Camille Vella Wilkinson, a veteran herself, had planned the ceremony that focused on the meaning of the flag and how to properly dispose of retired flags. The stripes are cut from the flag, leaving the stars on a blue background. Once cut up, the remnants are burned.

There wasn’t a fire – the fragments of flags we were all holding went into a paper bag that would burned at another ceremony.

Vella Wilkinson had planned for 14 people – one for each of the 13 stripes, plus the commander – to read from a script. Many of those reading were elected officials. The first of the readers read the names of the 13 original colonies represented by the 13 stripes. The red stripe stands for courage and the white for purity. Readers recited portions of the U.S. Constitution and quotes from Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, as well as John F. Kennedy’s quote, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” and Neil Armstrong’s famous line, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

As people placed the stripes in the bag, Caiozzo said, “I am the American flag, now old and faded, do not let me fly in disrepair, rather retire me from my duties only to replace me with a new flag so that I may continue to symbolize our country.”

Surely a parade and the speeches that followed would have been nice. But in the absence of those with the time and commitment to make it happen, this shifts the spotlight from those who served and who made the ultimate sacrifice for country to the flag and what it stands for. Indeed, this is not the traditional Memorial Day observance. It was respectful, reflective and rewarding. I look forward to seeing it repeated next Memorial Day.


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