Mike Magnuson

Memorial Day: Peace for a Day?

As Memorial Day weekend begins, Mike Magnuson shares some memories from past Memorial Days with his dad. Ugh, those Shriners.


I know I shouldn’t say this, because it suggests a lack of gratitude toward the brave men and women who have sacrificed their lives in military service for this country, but I’m always exceptionally happy when Memorial Day weekend rolls around in Wisconsin. The leaves here have grown back fully on the trees and in the wind they make a noise like a distant waterfall at the end of a forest path, a place of beauty and hope and light that someday I will step into. The birds make a pleasant racket from before daybreak until dusk and give off the impression they are continually joyful and never at a lack for ways to express this. The alfalfa rises in the fields and the corn shoots spread their little green wings and bask in the first week of their temporary, genetically-engineered life under the sun. In the daytime, I ride my bicycle alongside the fields and wave to the dairy cows passing time in their pastures. “Hello, ladies,” I say. “Nice day!” In the evening, I drink French rose and expose sausages and burgers to fire and smoke, and if all goes well, when the sun sinks from view, the first of the June bugs will arrive and buzz and tick against the screen windows, meaning that summer is here and life will be good.

My father felt the same way on Memorial Day weekend—he would go for long runs in the mornings and hang out in the backyard and drink beer and grill bratwurst and hope the June bugs would tick on our screens after dark—and I can say for certain my love for this weekend descended directly from him. It was always such a peaceful time. He was a veteran of World War II, a Marine who island-hopped in the South Pacific and landed in the early invasion waves on Guam and Okinawa and got hurt a couple of times and got patched up and went right back into the line, and if anyone were to possess a vividly and horrifyingly complete understanding of the nature of what the ultimate sacrifice for one’s country means, it would have been my father. He was not alone in this. He would never have said that he suffered more or experienced more horror than any other soldier. In fact, he never really said anything about the war. He would hang the United States flag over the flower box near our front door for Memorial Day weekend. The rest of the year, except for Independence Day, he kept the flag in a box. He kept his medals in a box, too, and my sisters tell me it was always in the car’s glove compartment, but I can’t remember ever seeing the medals. He probably didn’t want me to see them and get any noble ideas about joining the military when I was old enough.

On Memorial Day itself, there was a parade in my hometown, and my father wasn’t especially fond of parades, but the parade happened to form on our street. From early in the morning, we would have marching bands warming up and old-time car horns honking everywhere in our neighborhood and people either laughing or shouting to hurry up, to get in line, it’s almost time! Consequently, the festivities could not be avoided, so we would wander a couple of blocks from our house to Main Street and take a spot by the curb. When the honor guard passed to begin the parade, we would stand and remove our caps in the presence of the flag, but I can’t remember my father saluting. Maybe he did. The bands would then march by, along with the other typical stuff of parades—clowns, beauty queens, local dignitaries. A veteran or two or three of one conflict or another would always pass by in the back of a convertible and wave to everyone. I can’t remember my father waving back. I can’t remember him saying anything about the veterans in the parade, and I’m not sure if the parade organizers ever asked him to be in the parade. He definitely never participated.

One of the highlights of the parade each year was the Tripoli Shrine Motor Corps which consisted of a couple dozen of Milwaukee-area Shriners on motorcycles of various sizes, from the full-on, big-ass Harleys to little scooters. Each Shriner wore black pants and a white shirt and a maroon fez, and their parade performance involved them riding some not-so-daredevil circles around each other and occasioning much grateful applause. My father was never amused by this. He would fume and say, “Bunch of assholes. Look at them!” And the entire peaceful weekend would turn very sour and angry and unhappy for the several minutes it took for the Shiners to do their routine and motor their merry way down the parade route and away from us. “Assholes,” my father would keep saying. Then another marching band would pass and he would be peaceful and happy again. The Shriners were Masons who raised money for Children’s Hospitals, and they still do this—they will be in my hometown’s parade this very weekend—and there’s nothing wrong with raising money for sick children, but for some reason, on Memorial Day, when I was a kid, when those Shriners in fezzes performed their stupid motorcycle tricks, my father’s sense of peace and tranquility vanished.

You know what? Now that I think about it, my father did tell a couple of stories about the war, which meant he wasn’t entirely mum about his service to the nation. His stories had to do, in one way or another, with gastrointestinal disturbances which, to him, were uniformly hilarious.

He would tell one about his platoon finding a cave full of sake and canned fish on Okinawa and eating and drinking it all and getting as sick as they’d ever been in their lives. I guess that wasn’t really funny, but he thought so. He would tell another one about carrying a machine gun up a steep mountain, and the sergeant was in front of him in line with his ass directly level with my father’s face, and the sergeant farted with each stride. Funny!

In another story, he was on a forward base somewhere in the Pacific assembling for an island invasion and everyone was living in tents and getting rained on and catching malaria and having about as rotten a time as young men could have. The field toilets on the base were wooden boxes with holes in them and large, cauldron-like steel tubs underneath. Naturally, the amount of shit an invasion force could produce was prodigious, so every few days or so, a detail of soldiers were assigned to remove the wooden boxes and pour gasoline into the steel tubs to burn the shit. One day, the poor fellows assigned to this task left the gasoline sit in the shit a bit too long before chucking in the match and the buckets exploded and shit rained over the entire base. Odds are, with an explosion of that magnitude, at least one of those soldiers on shit-burning detail made the ultimate sacrifice right then and there, which would be an awfully sad way to go. In any case, my father loved telling that story. He would laugh so hard telling it he almost couldn’t get all the words out.

In his favorite war story, which probably took place on that same forward base during the island-hopping campaign, they had movie night in one of the big tents with a projector set up in the middle and popcorn and all the accoutrements and the soldiers filed in and took their seats and prepared to be entertained. Just before the movie began, the colonel walked in and everyone snapped to attention. In the quiet moment before the Colonel could tell the men to be at ease, someone let out a tremendous fart, truly epic, a shot heard ’round the world, and naturally, the men hooted and howled and thought that was the funniest thing ever. And the Colonel was not amused. He pointed to the culprit and yelled, “Send that man to the brig!” And off the poor bastard went for a week locked up and living on bread and water. The best part of the story? They hauled off the wrong guy! Imagine that. The wrong guy! He didn’t even let out the fart! He was innocent! My father would say that over and over, laughing so hard he was in tears. They got the wrong guy!

I don’t know why I’ve been telling you all of this. These are just personal memories of my father, and what’s that to you, really? He saw death and destruction on an unimaginable scale and only occasionally let people know what he thought were some of the funny parts of the experience. On Memorial Day weekend, he wanted to relax, to be calm, to be peaceful, and to have a nice time. Nothing was perfect, of course. The Shriners would piss him off or maybe something else would irritate him, but in the main, in his heart, the idea was to avoid hostility.

The reason to prosecute a war is to achieve peace, right?

I want to ask you, on this weekend of remembrance, what are you going to do to honor the fallen? How are you going to be peaceful? Are you going to keep your cell phone handy with your Twitter and Facebook locked and loaded, ready to argue with people about politics or sports or God only knows what? Are you going to post items referring to people as morons or idiots or douchebags? Are you going to call other human beings pieces of shit? Useless wastes of flesh? Et cetera? You know you will. You will pick fun, show outrage, be dismissive, crass, angry, and on and on and on. I will probably do it, too, and in advance of this, I am so ashamed of myself. We live in a culture where brutal insults have become not only our hobbies but our constant compulsion.

If we want peace, we must try to live in peace. Obviously, we don’t live in a peaceful time. Obviously, in the history of civilization, there has never been a truly peaceful time. Obviously, we all have causes for which we want to fight, which is a terrible turn of phrase, if you think about it.

So maybe this weekend, try to let it go for a while. Put down your phones, quit arguing, and appreciate the little, pleasant things in this world that so many have died to make possible for us.

Well, that’s that. I’m heading out for a bike ride this afternoon, and afterward, I’ll be hanging out on the back porch with the grill going, if you feel like stopping by.




Mike Magnuson

Mike Magnuson is the author of two novels, The Right Man for the Job and The Fire Gospels; two memoirs, Lummox: The Evolution of a Man and Heft on Wheels: A Field Guide to Doing a 180; and book of cycling humor, Bike Tribes: A Field Guide to North American Cyclists. His short fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Salon, Esquire, Gentleman’s Quarterly, The Massachusetts Review, Men’s Health, Backpacker, Popular Mechanics, and other publications, and he has written many features for Bicycling magazine. He lives in Appleton, Wisconsin, where he is finishing a novel about the 1944 Tour of Flanders. He also teaches prose writing in Pacific University’s Brief-Residency MFA Program in Forest Grove, Oregon.

Related posts