I attended my hometown's rememberance day parade and service this morning. If you count my grandfather's trinket in my pocket, there were four generations of my family there.
A quaintly British affair on the seafront, the crowd of all ages spread out between the cenotaph listing the local dead of two world wars and the ANZAC memorial - a little obelisk erected in memory of the Aussies & Kiwis stationed here during the First World War, either side of service on the Western Front, or the more unfortunate in the large local military hospital - a cruel irony of history is that some of them never went home. Having survived the horrors of trench warfare, they succumbed to the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic. They're buried in local cemetaries, their gravestones kept in good condition by always unseen hands.
As the British part of the service ended, the parade marched off a little distance down the promenade - led by a traditionally flat sounding Salvation Army band, the veterans proudly marching behind them, eyes front, ramrod straight, led by their association colours. A few were pushed along in their wheelchairs behind the main contingient, followed in turn by the local cadets - Royal Navy, Royal Marines, Army and Royal Air Force. The dignified applause that began as the veterans passed by continued as the excited toddlers from the Cub Scouts and Brownies bounced by in their bright blue jumpers, followed by their older comrades in the Scouts and Girl Guides. The spectators ambled their way to the other memorial on the seafront - not the prettiest obelisk in the world, it has to be said, but the monument commemorates a large group of young men that the town took to their hearts in 1943 and who made the ultimate sacrifice on Omaha beach and beyond in 1944/45. A grubby red, white and grey stars and stripes fluttered in the cold wind atop its' aluminium pole. It began to rain. The assembled British veterans stood stock still as the freezing shower whipped about their elderly, blazered and bemedalled bodies, the crowd pulled up their hoods or unfurled umbrellas and the mayor droned on, unheard by most of the crowd as the tannoy sytem either didn't work or was never installed this far down in the first place. The Cadets stood erect, not to be outdone by the proud old men in front of them. The Cubs and Brownies stole hearts as they imitated their elders. As suddenly as it had started, the rain stopped.
A small group of ladies in their eighties and nineties waited patiently to place thier floral tributes to lost loved ones from a faraway land upon the memorial, fewer this year than last. A bugler played 'The last post' prior to a moments emotional silence. The Salvation Army struck up a flat rendition of 'The Star Spangled Banner'. It didn't matter. It was a genuine tribute, shared by all who witnessed it. A traditional barked order that no doubt took the veterans back to their youth precluded a smart right turn, march off and swift dispersal from the parade. The veterans just as proud, the children just as enthusiastic, the crowd just as appreciative.
As the crowd dispersed, I stayed a while. Years ago I was very involved with commemorating the men who passed through this town and embarked for Normandy from the local harbour. I wanted a moment to myself, to silently remember the elderly friends I made who had survived, and those who did not. Then I saw him - a frail old man in a blue blazer and U.S. veteran's cap - blue with yellow piping. Still tall, still proud, still alive, but noticeably older. His wife clinging with fierce pride to his elbow, she'd aged just as much.
I was going to stride over and renew my friendship, but my thoughts overtook me. Bob had survived Exercise Tiger, Omaha Beach, The Bocage,The Bulge, Aachen and the campaign to Czechoslovakia, and in his quiet, modest way enlightened me as to what it was like to be part of that hard journey. He never wanted to be involved at first, much preferring to live out his life without going through his often horrific experiences again. I'd approached him as I began my career as a researcher, always respectful of his wishes not to relive the horrors he'd been through, and moved on to pestering those more willing to talk.
Then one day my phone rang. Bob had decided it was important his fallen comrades should not be forgotten, and as long as I kept him out of the spotlight, he'd agree to be interviewed. His quiet dignity was an inspirational spur to me as I struggled to get things done in the face of local government indifference. You don't let people like Bob down.
He's still with us. I was so pleased to see him again. The last G.I. in my home town; a living treasure and a fine ambassador for his country. I'll tell you what he's like - years ago, the U.S. memorial was in need of a clean-up and the hourly chimes within in need of repair. Bob offered to pay for it - on his normal condition that nobody knew he did it - and told an embarrassed and ashamed local official just what the memorial stood for. It was soon clean and gleaming, with new plaques commemorating the units that passed through the town. Whether the local council or Bob paid for it we'll never know.
Like I say, I was going to go over and say hello, but something stopped me - I didn't want to intrude on a private moment. Just seeing he's still with us was enough for me. He knows who I am and what I did, more importantly people here know who Bob is and what he did. There used to be a few like Bob about at these services, GI's who had married local girls and either returned here to retire, or never went back to America at all. He's the last one left, to my knowledge. I'm proud of him. All America should be proud of him. Thanks, Bob - hope to see you at the next parade.