This year, on Memorial Day, I reminisced about Memorial Days past. It used to be a huge day of drinking for me and my American Legion comrades of the 1970s and 1980s. I don’t miss them – the days of drinking; I was just thinking of them. I do miss my fellow legionnaires.
Shortly after being discharged from the Army (honorably, I might add), my mother wanted me to join the local American Legion post. We oblige our mothers when asked, right? My father was a legionnaire, it was only genetic that I become one too. So, I joined American Legion Post 65 in Vail, Iowa. For the longest time, I was the youngest active member. Most were Korean War veterans, several were World War II veterans, and a few were Vietnam War veterans older than me.
I was given a uniform. Reluctantly, I wore the damned thing. I was sort of tired of wearing uniforms about that time. We were called out for funerals, parades, and the yearly cemetery duty of three graveyards on Memorial Day each year.
Every year, on Memorial Day, Legion members would gather at the Legion Club around 8:30 am. The keg would be tapped, and most of those present would draw a beer in a plastic cup and take it with them to the first cemetery, Kings Cemetery about four miles northeast of town. The festivities at Kings began at 9:00 am.
Part of the ritual is to read the names of those veterans buried in the cemetery. Kenny Nelson was our chaplain. He read the names of our deceased comrades. At Kings Cemetery, all the surnames were Slecta, with the exception of the lone last name read by Kenny – Banachek. As you can tell, the graveyard was primarily a cemetery for Bohemians who settled the land northeast of Vail. There were about nine or ten veterans buried there.
The second cemetery was the Vail Cemetery, and the ritual began at 9:30 am. The cemetery was established for those of various faiths who had died in the town, and surrounding countryside of Vail, with the exception being Catholics and those resting eternally in Kings Cemetery. Unfortunately, by the time we arrived at this cemetery, the beer had caught up with most legionnaires. A Presbyterian minister was often on hand to say some words and read a prayer. The chaplain, Kenny, had to read close to 60 or 70 names at this location. You could count on one member of the firing squad telling the sergeant at arms to remind the preacher that we had to be at the Catholic Cemetery at ten. As you can imagine, the prayers and sermon went on far too long. The sole restroom with one toilet at that Legion Club in town was more important than a beer refill on the way through town to the Catholic cemetery.
St. Ann’s Cemetery was a mile-and-a-half out of town on the southwest side. This was the big display. Hundreds of people showed up after Mass was over twenty minutes earlier. There were way over one-hundred names to remember at this cemetery. For some reason, a legion member by the name of Bill was always stuck with a rifle that jammed. The firearms were old M-1 carbines that had a tendency to jam at times. Most legionnaires in the firing squad who picked up a firearm that jammed just went through the procedures without actually squeezing the trigger at the command of “fire”. But not Bill. He would set the rifle down and step on the bolt to get it open for the jammed shell to fall out so that he could shoot during the next volley. You could hear some people in the crowd giggle. Eyes rolled among the rest of us.
After St. Ann’s, we headed back to the Legion Club for more beer and a chicken dinner around 11:00 am. The flag outside the post was raised from half-staff to full-staff at noon and many sat around for an hour or two socializing and drinking.
A few of us didn’t know any better. We might get in a car and go visit other posts throughout the area. We traveled to Manning, Arcadia, Denison, Breda, Schleswig, and just about any post within a 40-mile radius. We were often delayed if Fitzpatrick showed up.
Fitzpatrick lived in Schleswig; a town heavily populated by German descendants. Fitzpatrick was (or claimed to be) the only Irishman in town. He wanted to party with the Irish in Vail. On more than one occasion, we took Fitzpatrick with us to other posts.
Life at work the following day was pure hell.
I was an American Legion member for about 23 years. I even served one year as the commander of the Post 65 in Vail. I quit paying dues sometime in the 1990s because I was upset at the national office and the national commander.
I had written a letter asking the national American Legion to stop raising money to lobby for a constitutional amendment to prohibit flag burning, and to use that fundraising money to help veterans. I received a form letter. I wrote again. I received a letter from the commander asking why I have not submitted my dues. I wrote again, explaining again why I hadn’t paid my dues. I received another form letter – this one telling me all about how the American Legion was fighting to get an amendment passed that would prohibit flag burning. I gave up.
This year, before I awoke, Stephanie displayed our U.S.A. made flame-retardant flag at half-staff outside our house. At noon, I proudly raised it to full-staff. I spent the rest of the day enjoying the weather – safe – sober – at home!