For Memorial Day Now and Then

I found it very hard to read this 30-year-old essay about Memorial Day in the context of the now in which we find ourselves.  My children are all adults, good people.  Two of them have children of their own.  These are troubled times. 

My father was a patriot who wrote speeches for Henry Wallace (go look him up), avidly supported Adlai Stevenson II (him too) and believed firmly in free speech.  He would be very sad and angry were he alive today. 

Growing up on West 83rd Street there was the annual Memorial Day parade, there was the Soldiers and Sailors Monument.   I don’t think that the parade was the political event it became after Vietnam or maybe I was too young to see anything but the excitement of a parade.

The New York tabloids of that time had political beliefs that were promoted on their editorial pages and I suppose in what they chose to report.  The gray lady, that I read every Sunday and in which this piece appeared, promoted her positions on the editorial pages as well.  But in those days we trusted that the news was reported truthfully.  In those days the most trusted man in America was a journalist, Walter Cronkite.  No more.

 

            Memorial Day 1985 found me with three children under the age of 4, a house on Long Island and doing pretty well. College in the 60’s had prepared me for many things. That Memorial Day was not among them.

            The war in Indochina, colleges clamping down on student rights, demonstrations for equality; the 60’s weren’t a time that you loved the Stars and Stripes just because it was the American flag. My peers were wearing it; some were burning it.

            Who would have guessed that less than 20 years later I would find myself struggling for answers to the questions of children in front of my house in suburbia, while putting up the flag?

            This was my first attempt at a substantive lesson on America. In a way I was teaching me, too – letting them know what the flag stands for and why, and that no matter how bad things may get, it is a symbol worthy of respect. Those stars and stripes were something to bring to mind the ideals that, even if lost at some later date, should be fought for fervently.

            The metamorphosis was now complete; the antiwar liberal of the 60’s had grown into the antiwar liberal of the 80’s. But the perspective of age and parenthood has added an understanding of, as well as a willingness to understand, freedom and its symbols.

            The two oldest children, 3 ½ and 2 at the time, love books, particularly Dr. Seuss, so I tried to use what they could fathom to teach them what Old Glory means. I told them it stands for freedom, freedom to have books like Dr. Seuss’s and the Berenstain Bears.

            I told them that in some places children aren’t allowed to have books or, if they are, it may not be just any book they want; that libraries like ours are not available everywhere; that in some places and times books have been burned. These things they grasped. The images were powerful, even for children so young.

            It is hard for them to see freedom in every wave of the flag on the front porch, but the seed needs to be planted. There were more images to be used; full advantage should be taken of an opportunity such as this.

            The children love going to religious services, and when they heard that in some places these were not permitted, that churches and synagogues were locked, they were mortified. Missing those special family events would be just terrible. All the fun we try to give them in that setting had paid off.

            The freedom to read and the freedom to pray were only the beginning. We talked briefly about choosing friends, going to the movies, walking where you want and visiting friends and relatives in other cities, states and countries.

            We even talked about newspapers. They see me read a big one every weekend, and see the pleasure I get from it. When they learned that people everywhere do not have access to the news as freely as we, they showed concern.

            But Memorial Day is even more than freedom, more than displaying the flag. Putting out the flag means something extra special on that day. It means remembering and honoring. These concepts were a lot more difficult to present to children 3 ½ and 2, but it was another opportunity not to be passed up.

            It was the chance to plant a seed that might grow. It was a chance to set them on the right path. Something to look back at, to support them if ever they needed to fight for those ideals.

            I mentioned war and killing and dying. There was some comprehension: television, the violence of our times, even, sadly, at their ages. And when I spoke of remembering and honoring, remembering was easy.

            Honoring was harder. I said it was a special remembering for having done something special, like keeping us free to read, to play, to have a house and to watch television. That’s not quite how Webster’s would define it, but they understood.

            The flag is a symbol of all these things. It is supposed to make us think of the freedom to read and play, the soldiers who fought and died and those who serve today to keep our freedom safe.

 

Engine Company 56

My father was a lot of things; the one that gave me the most joy was fire buff.  I don’t know why dad was so involved in the fire department and then the Red Cross but he was, and I benefited greatly.

Engine Company 56’s house was on 83rd Street between Amsterdam and Columbus, a block from 222.  It looked like most other firehouses in New York City.  The big red doors, the brass poles, the engine floor, the boots and gear set up for a quick exit, the kitchen space, the pool table and the bunks.  Those big doors were often open, a safe haven, a friendly neighborhood spot.

I don’t know if it was unique but this house still had the three doors in the back of the engine floor and the pulleys on the ceiling.  Yup, the three doors opened into the area in the rear where the horses that pulled the steamer had once lived.  The pulleys helped control the harness that was dropped on the back of the three horses after the bells rang and a fireman called out the address and yelled ‘get out’ while the horses ran to their places.  It must have been amazing to watch.

I grew up in this firehouse.  We were there, it seemed, all the time.  I learned how to slide down a brass pole, how to cook and how to play pool.  I learned about comrades in arms regardless of age or religion or color.

When we weren’t at 56, we were in the dispatchers’ office in central park.  Nestled in the 79th Street transverse was a one-story building that housed the communications for the F.D.N.Y. in Manhattan.  When you pulled the handle on the red box on the corner this is where the signal came, light flashing over the box number in a giant oval that surrounded most of the work area.  In the center of the oval was the switchboard where calls were routed when you dialed ‘O’ and said, “I want to report a fire”.

There were two kinds of personnel here, dispatchers and injured firemen on light duty (they were all men in those days).  Also inside the oval were the radio consoles and the ‘key’.  These were the two methods of communication that got the engines moving and kept them in communication.  The key was like a telegraph key used to tap out the fire alarm box number.   The one on our corner, 83rd and Amsterdam, was ‘1138’.  The tapping resulted in bells ringing all over Manhattan.  The watch officer in each firehouse listened and counted, he then looked up at the board which listed the boxes to which that fire company was to respond.  At our firehouse when our box was pulled he then shouted “Box 1138, Amsterdam and eight three street, first due”.

Dad’s hobby and his profession met many times.  There was the film “FDNY” which even included a boy who said “when I grow up I want to be a fireman” and there was the film “The Job is Fire”, you can imagine what that included.  I own prints of both these films.  There was also Dad’s attempt at a regular radio program “Your Fire Reporter”.  When I listen to the “demo” tape his voice rings so clearly, his talent so sharp and the tears well up stinging.  He never sold the show but it lives on for me.

Being a buff meant touring with visiting fire buffs like the guys who came up from Baltimore two weeks after the Wooster Street Fire where they were still pouring water on the pile of rubble that had been the building that collapsed killing six members of the department: two firefighters and four fire patrol members.  The building had been used to store huge rolls of newsprint and it could not support these rolls when they were soaked.  It was a terrible day in February 1958.  I was eight.  We were all silent during that visit.

Dad rode the Red Cross canteen for many years, working out of it to provide coffee, soup and sandwiches to firefighters on the lines.  I got to go out on this rig sometimes but not to real fires.  The volunteers were members of the Third Alarm Association, responding to multiple alarm fires to serve those who served us.

junior

There was more to being a buff for me too.  I became Junior Buff #2 in the City of New York.   I still have my badge, bestowed on me by Chief of Department George David.  He was a tall man.  In the official photo I stand on a chair between him and my father.  We were in size order, Chief, me and dad.

Dad and I visited the dispatchers regularly until the end of November 1963.  After the assassination of our beloved JFK the fire department changed policy and no longer permitted visits like ours.  The firehouse changed too but not so dramatically.  After all, these buildings were a part of community life.