Decoration Day also celebrated community, the American spirit

Doyle Baker
Doyle Baker

A recent mention of Decoration Day, which later became Memorial Day, revived memories I thought had been completely obliterated by time. As a day to anticipate with keen excitement and to relish from dawn to dusk, it had little competition for me as a boy. Even Christmas suffered by comparison.

Every year Decoration Day was celebrated on May 30 at Mill Springs National Cemetery at Nancy, nine miles west of Somerset. Adult fare consisted of listening to a speech by County Judge Tarter, or even U.S. Sen. John Sherman Cooper. I didn’t understand the flowery, sentimental oratory, but I was mightily impressed by the parade.

Seventy-eight years ago it was still easy to muster a contingent of WWI soldiers in their fancy dress uniforms with flat nickel-plated helmets. The populace had not grown so blasé that the surge of patriotism which brought a thrill to the heart and a faint mist to the eye was a cause of embarrassment.

The military band and flags were audible, brilliant embodiments of my country. And when the lone Army tank paused and fired a booming shell or two, it struck unmitigated awe, if not terror, in a pre-teen boy having just disembarked from a mule-drawn farm wagon.

For weeks, we boys prayed that it would not rain the night before. Such an unfortuitous occurrence would have guaranteed a miserable day setting out a patch of tobacco plants in the mud. It always seemed the monsoon season arrived on May 29, but understanding parents usually managed to let us quit work in time for a half day. Appropriate dress for the event was a new pair of overalls. A boy had to look presentable at the Decoration.

For a day founded on a somber note, it contained unparalleled exhilaration for a boy who was in the throes of the Depression, but didn’t realize it. An endless row of stands, crude two-by-four frameworks covered by tarps, held delicacies beyond imagination.

Two huge dips of ice cream on a large cone cost 5 cents, as did an orange Nehi drink, or a Baby Ruth candy bar large enough to satisfy a hungry stomach for an hour. Long balloons or squeaky birds on a stick with a string lent color and action to the milling crowd which undoubtedly numbered in the several hundreds, if not the thousands.

Of course the stands were discreetly erected in the wide strip of grass beside the highway, just outside the high stone fence surrounding the spacious lawn where the hallowed dead lay. A dollar or maybe a bit more, partially earned by helping a neighbor or uncle set tobacco, and supplemented by hard-pressed but compassionate parents, was a sufficient bankroll to assure a glorious day of eating, drinking and reveling.

The men and bigger boys of the rougher element spent a lot of time gathered in small groups in the little woodland across the highway, which served as a hitching ground for the teams and saddle horses which brought us there.

The furtive looks and frequent ducking behind trees were barely visible from my side of the road, but were ample evidence of imbibing (illegal in a dry county). The occasional fist fight and the rare discharge of a .38 Special pistol, which many citizens carried in the hip pocket of their overalls, was convincing proof that a prudent boy should stay on the legitimate side of the road.

In a cultural vein, however, over there in the parking area a lot of spontaneous music was heard. There were usually enough guitars, fiddles, mandolins and French harps (harmonicas to the uninitiated) to keep one or more lively tunes going all of the time. Sometimes a brash exhibitionist might try a bit of awkward tap-dancing on the back of a flat wagon bed. Thus were the arts advanced until near sundown.

The old folks sat along every inch of the flat-topped stone wall encircling the cemetery, and they visited. This was the day set aside for the return of those who had gone “out west” to Illinois or Indiana to work on the large farms which grew corn by the mile, and those who had drifted off to “Dee-troit” to work in the factories.

There was an endless array of uncles, aunts, cousins, and dislocated neighbors who could tell marvelous tales of what life was like in the big world out there. There were babies to be admired and young’uns who had grown unbelievably since last year. On the gravel drive which followed along inside the wall, young folks first allowed the attraction of nature to outweigh the acute mortification of being seen associating with someone of the opposite sex. A veritable parade of hand-holding youths amused their elders by their constant circling of the gravel drive. Their first fumbling attempts at “courting” usually subjected them to the ignominy of catcalls from their rude peers.

Naturally, I never succumbed to such nonsense. I was much too bashful. My romantic liaisons were reserved for much later years, in the environs of a university town 80 miles to the north.

We built character on those Decoration Days of long ago. We tasted life’s finest delicacies for a few hard-earned coins. We saw the various segments of a fragmented neighborhood reunited for a day and separated again. Each of us returned to our own simple existences, with a more worldly appreciation for the other.

We dedicated a few moments to the honored dead to whom we owed our nation’s freedom. And amid all this, we matured as we enlarged our horizons. People are more sophisticated now. It takes much more to fill, to thrill and to entertain. Inspiration and patriotism are a little out of style now to some, but we lost a lot when we let them slip away from our public expression.

Let us hope they are not irretrievably lost. I believe the true spirit of America was embodied in those simple Decoration Day pleasures. I think of that spirit every year about this time. And I miss it.

Doyle Baker, a native of Pulaski County, is a retired vice president of Kentucky Utilities. He lives in Lexington with wife, Marian.