“Goddamn it! Why can’t they leave it alone?” Chase Winston muttered, flipping a finger at the calendar. Every year his blood pressure surged when he looked at the last week of May and the three-day weekend that had replaced the Memorial Day of his childhood. “How many of these sonsabitches even remember when it’s supposed to be? Shit. All they want is a extra day to go to the lake and drink beer.”
Chase was oblivious of his reputation as the town crackpot. Children shied away from him on the street; he didn’t like kids anyway. Young adults smirked behind his back; he didn’t notice. Older citizens tolerated him with indulgent and knowing nods; he didn’t care. Most of his friends had passed on. All of his family was safe in the arms of the Lord.
He’d been only twenty when World War II erupted and changed his life. He’d left behind his fiancée, Mary, and she hadn’t gone the distance. A Dear John letter arrived just before his ship sailed for Guadalcanal. Perhaps that had made him crazy. He’d charged into the bullets and shells without a thought for survival. He hadn’t cared. Mary was his whole life and without her, he felt he might as well die on a Pacific island. He’d die a hero, doing his duty. Then she’d be sorry. But he’d survived, his left hand gone, his body stitched with scars. Mary had moved away and wed a whole man by the time Chase was discharged from the V.A. hospital. He’d never wasted time on another woman, except for the occasional professional who was paid to love his scarred body and aching heart.
Chase had moved back to the small prairie town where he’d grown up, daring anyone to pity him. Now he was one of the last veterans in town, except for a few Vietnam and Korean War survivors, and all but two of them had done duty far from the front lines. He cursed the politicians who had bowed to public demand, or to their own convenience, and had made a travesty of the day set aside for honoring America’s heroic dead. And last year, the damned town fathers hadn’t bothered to arrange a parade on the fake day, much less on the real one. Said it was too much trouble.
Chase had gone to the town meeting when the mayor and town council decided to drop the annual parade and picnic. As the topic came up for discussion, Chase leapt to his feet. “I didn’t fight no goddamn war so’s a buncha droopy bastards like you could tell me it wasn’t important.”
“Calm down, Chase.” Mayor Bennett made shushing motions. “We don’t have the money for a big celebration. A parade disrupts business. And people just don’t care that much any more.”
“Only ’cause you convinced ’em not to.”
Bennett’s face reddened. “We serve community interests. When the people deem a celebration relevant in today’s world, we’ll—”
“Stuff your damn relevance! What’s right is right. An’ it’ll always be right, in spite of hypocrites like y’all.” Chase stomped out of the meeting, and his outburst became a story that made folks chuckle at his crackpot ways.
This year only the Lions’ Club members made a token effort at celebrating Memorial Day. On Monday, May twenty-eighth, they set out flags on all the light poles on Main Street, but no ceremonies were held at the cemetery on the edge of town. No platform decorated with bunting supported the mayor and other dignitaries through patriotic speeches.
Today, Wednesday, the flags still trembled in the breeze, but Memorial Day, the real one, was just another day in the life of Norwood, Kansas. Business as usual. Kids out of school at last, bored already with the slow pace of small town life in the burgeoning heat of early summer. Farmers hoping for a scent of rain as a warm wind chased skylarks across the sky.
Chase drummed gnarled fingers on the table in the kitchen where three generations of meals had been prepared and served. His old, creased face looked like a map of the Rockies, split in canyons and ridged with trails of scars. Dark eyes, at odds with his snowy hair and eyebrows, still surveyed the world like the eagle that perched on the lightning-killed elm on the edge of town. He’d never needed glasses, just longer arms to read the newspaper. Or the calendar.
By God, he was pissed! He’d made a damned difference in the world, kept democracy moving through the Pacific, in spite of the Japs who wanted him dead and stinking in the hell hole some called Paradise. The shitheads on the city council think a parade would cause too much disruption? His lips curved and his dentures gleamed. Ha! He’d show those pissants real disruption.
* * * * *
“What the hell’s he think he’s doin’?” Sam asked, leaning over the hardware store counter to see better.
“Dunno,” Ben said. “Looks like he’s ready for a war.”
Sam came out from behind the counter, and he and Ben joined a gathering crowd on the sidewalk along Main Street. The object of their interest stepped purposefully down the yellow line in the center of the street.
Chase’s Marine dress uniform hung loosely on his lanky frame. A holstered pistol rode on his hip, and a vintage rifle was slung across his back. He carried a six-foot dowel, to which was attached an American flag, the one he’d flown over his door every Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day for as long as anyone in town could remember. Two boys in Scout uniforms flanked him, tapping out a martial rhythm on snare drums. The smaller looked as if he were enjoying the attention; the taller looked as if he wished Norwood were subject to earthquakes and that gaping holes in the pavement would swallow him whole.
Behind them, a Ford three-quarter-ton filled with hay bales honked, three get-out-of-my-way taps. Chase ignored the truck.
The news had spread in that curious way that news does, without benefit of phone lines or messengers. Afternoon drinkers stood on the saloon porch and gawked. Clive’s Market emptied of shoppers, some still pushing their loaded carts. People emerging from the post office stopped shuffling through their mail and stared.
“Jesus Christ! Will you look at ol’Chase,” someone called.
“Hey, Chase, you a one-man platoon?” another joked.
Chase stared straight ahead, ignoring the catcalls. Oncoming traffic pulled to the curb, and the vehicles behind him slowed to the rhythm of his stride, following the town wing nut with something like respect.
“Man’s two bricks shy of a full load,” Sam muttered. He was young, too young to remember tradition.
Ben looked thoughtful as he slouched against the building front. “You know what today is?”
“It’s Memorial Day.” Ben grinned. “Ol’ Chase musta got sore at the city for not having a parade this year. So he decided to make his own.” He pushed himself upright. “Think I’ll take a little walk.” He stepped into the street and fell in behind the drummers.
A burly, bearded man set down his mug, jumped off the bar porch, and hurried to Ben’s side. Hooter, the proprietor of the five and dime, joined in the procession, passing tiny American flags out to the crowd. Soon other men, and then some women, joined the impromptu parade. Their footsteps automatically found the beat, and they marched like seasoned veterans.
As the procession neared City Hall, the drummers slowed their cadence. Chase executed a precise quarter turn to the right and held the flag at attention. Mayor Bennett and the other five city employees stood on the steps. No one spoke.
Suddenly, the sound of a trumpet drifted over the crowd. The lonely, wavering cry of “Taps” reached through the crowd, shivering on the air. Men removed their caps, women stood with hands over their hearts. The motley company led by one crazed old man saluted those who had died in service to America.
No one spoke as the last note quavered into silence. The trumpeter, standing on a porch two doors away, executed an about-face and disappeared inside. One by one, the marchers dispersed back to their occupations, and the drummer boys escaped.
Chase lowered the makeshift flagpole to the sidewalk and began to untie the flag, careful not to let it touch the ground. The mayor joined him and took one end of the banner. Without speaking, they folded the flag into a three-cornered parcel, tucking the ends in neatly.
Chase held the bundle in the crook of his arm. He looked down the street, watching the last of the volunteers who had followed him go back to their everyday lives. The corner of his lip curved into an almost-smile. “Reckon next year we might have a float or two, maybe the high school band?”
The mayor grinned at the thorny old rascal and nodded. “I reckon.”