Today is Memorial Day. Those who have died for this nation deserve more than one day, of course. In the hustle and bustle of daily life other things invade. Bills. Kids. Mortgages. Jobs. One day at a time. It’s not always easy. But we’re at least given a fighting chance. Lots of men and women died to make this so.
It’s not an even playing field by any means. That’s because our leaders have rarely been made of the same stuff as the soldiers they sometimes so cavalierly send off to battle. But that’s on us. We need to do better. Walk the rows of any cemetery today. See the flags erect in the breeze. Ask yourself. “Am I worthy of their sacrifice?”
We should pause every once in a while to remember. To reflect. And to whisper thanks.
My father did not go to war because he was colorblind. He used to joke that the Army was afraid he’d go running around shooting the wrong guys. Pop was such a gentle man I can’t even imagine him flying bomber missions like his brother Jim, or running for cover in London as German bombs fell all around him, like his brother Tom was forced to do. I was named after his brother, who one night had to drag a friend named Frank Burke back into a bomb shelter after Frank insisted on screaming at the overhead planes, “come down and fight like men you Nazi bastards!” Clearly this was a man who’d fit in with the Flannery clan, so Tom brought him home to meet the family after the war, and Frank promptly fell in love and married my Aunt Clare.
Dad was such a gentle man. But then so was Jim. And Tom. And Frank Burke. Yet they fought. They were needed and they went. They didn’t make a big fuss out of it. I can’t remember any of them even talking, much less bragging about what they’d done. They didn’t consider themselves special.
My Mom’s sister Frances remained single her whole life, despite countless marriage proposals (and more than a few diamond rings) from GIs who fell in love with her. She was an Army nurse who saw the horrors of war up-close. She saw what bullets and bombs do to mostly teenage kids. She was tough as nails and as soft as porcelein. She could swear like a sailor and soothe like a priest in the confessional. She was a dark haired beauty, 5 foot nothing, who was as brave as any man who ever stormed a fortified position. After the war she lived alone for the rest of her life. With her dogs. I don’t think she ever got over the things she’d seen. She loved all her boys. She could never make a choice when some begged for her hand. I don’t think she ever felt lonely. She never talked about the things she’d seen.
Mom’s brother Donald was 15. He told recruiters he was a little older and they believed him. He was sent to the Philippines and was soon captured by the Japanese. He spent the entire war in the hell that was a Japanese POW camp. The things he endured are almost unspeakable. An actual photograph, tracked down by my Dad after the war, survives. Taken by the Red Cross, it shows Donald with the other prisoners. He’s easy to spot. He’s the only boy surrounded by dozens of grizzled men. He looks like a mascot. The picture fills me with wonder, and then horror.
Over the years details of the tortures my Uncle suffered leaked out, though never from him. He never spoke of his ordeal. Not even to his own children. He came home from war a man not to be trifled with, but I’m told he went into war a boy not to be trifled with! He somehow lived a full, entirely decent life. Loving husband, father, and grandfather. He’s now in his 90s. The eyes still sparkle. Though his body has begun to break down he’s still in there. The kind of man they don’t really make anymore. I can’t think of him without being proud that I share the same blood.
A simple thank you on this one day seems woefully insufficient. But I’ll say if anyway.
“The Greatest Generation”. Used in any other context it would sound hokey. Like being subject to one of those “when I was our age” speeches.
Tom Brokaw coined it I believe. Brokaw was inspired to write his book of that title after hearing about and then meeting Gino Merli, who of course is one of our own. Gino’s heroics that long ago night in Belgium would make Hollywood director’s blush. You read about them, and you expect a giant colossus to emerge from the wings. What you get instead is a 140 pound kid who should have been in high school. There he was instead, in a strange country surrounded by the bodies of his friends, single-handedly fighting off wave after wave of German attacks until reinforcements arrived. When it was over his first request was to go to mass, so he could pray for the souls of the men he’d killed. They don’t make Gino Merli’s anymore. He received his congressional medal of honor from President Truman, then came home to Peckville to graduate high school.
My Dad was a good friend of Gino’s. I never got to meet him. But I did meet his wife and family….and I’m a better person because of it. I wrote a play called “The Last Thoughtsof Gino Meri” that has been performed over 100 times to more than 20,000 people. Most had never heard of Gino Merli. I hope some of them are thinking of him today. Like I am.
The soldiers of this nation have always done their duty. The duty of the rest of us is to ensure that the sacrifices they’ve made in the past, along with those we’ll ask of them in the future, will not be in vain. More will die. More will go off to fight as one person and come home as another, not quite whole. How a nation treats its soldiers, both dead and living, says a lot about the kind of nation it is.
Be worthy. Earn this.
In a bit..
I’m not a road warrior by any means, but I play when I can where I can. I’ve played upper-crust places and joints that have seen better days. I’ve played for good wages and I’ve played for no wages. I’ve played for 150 people and I’ve played to one person who was eating a cheeseburger and watching golf on TV…..a TV that was above my head so I pretended he was intently listening. I’ve played solo acoustic, I’ve played in duos, and I’ve played full band shows. I’ve been told I was too loud. I’ve been told I wasn’t loud enough. More times than I can count guys would come up to me while I was singing a song and ask questions like “dude, where’s the bathroom?” Sometimes you’re the windshield and sometimes you’re the bug.
Most of the time people aren’t listening, because they are not at the bar to hear you. They are at the bar to drink. You are the equivalent of the music that is piped into elevators. To the layperson this sounds pretty bad. I mean, why bother playing at all if that’s the case? Well, playing music is fun for one thing. Musicians play for themselves all the time. We get to go out in public and play and get paid for it? People who listen are a bonus.
And they are out there.
I don’t care how jaded you are. When you’re singing “The Weight” for the 400th time, and suddenly the guy at the bar you thought had passed out lifts his head and starts singing “Take a load off Anniiiiiie!!”, and then half the place is trying the 3 part harmony at the end of the chorus, it doesn’t get much better than that. It’s hard to explain. We’re up there singing, and we’re watching you. Are you mouthing the words? Are you tapping your foot? Is your head bobbing up and down? If you are, we see you. You make our nights.
(On this topic….it’s no wonder musicians who achieve sudden fame so often go batshit. To go from scanning the bar searching for someone singing along….to instant adulation? If your head ain’t anchored to your neck with pikes from the start, it’s probably inevitable you’ll turn into a self-absorbed jerk.)
There’s lots of folks who live life hard who settle into bar stools for hours at a time. They’re this way because the day is a grind. It’s long and it’s tiring and it’s not glamorous. They’ve got no picket fence to come home to. I don’t want to get all Working Class Hero here….but that’s just reality. There’s some rough looking folks out in our local watering holes. And god bless them all.
They’re the backbone of the operation. The young 20 somethings with the golf shirts who drink too many light beers and yell for “Free Bird” all night long are so common I don’t think most musicians even notice them any more. Or at least, this group all starts to look the same. Traveling in packs, the girls dressed way too nice for a place that has a hole the size of a head in the bathroom door. The guys with their cropped hair and golf tans, trying to look tough but being careful not to antagonize the guy at the bar with the chain hanging from his wallet spilling shots down the front of his Harley Davidson t-shirt. Every night in every bar, there’s sort of an un-easy truce between the regulars and the interlopers. It’s very interesting to observe.
Some of the places I’ve played have reputations of being “rough”. “Oh, that’s a rough bar”. We’ve all heard that one. I’m sure the reputations are hard-earned and well deserved. But, as goes is most places, you won’t find trouble if you’re not looking for it. Musicians never look for trouble. We just arrive, set-up, and play. In all my time out there I’ve been treated fine. Bartenders. Waitresses. The regulars. They just seem to take musicians under their wing. Treat the gig with respect and you’ll get a fair-shake all around. That’s more than I can say for the folks I have to deal with when I leave the bars. You can’t buy class. If you think you’re too good for a bar, the place probably doesn’t want you in the first place.
That being said, it ain’t always pleasant. At a recent show a girl who should not have been wearing a thong wore a thong and sat at the end of the bar, in my sight line. That threw a wrench in a few songs. Later on a guy visited the men’s room, which was about 6 feet from my location, and dropped something so nasty in there I got dizzy. This was after the girl ran into the ladies room saying she had to vomit, and promptly vomited. She had threatened to do so at the bar itself, but the bartender merely pointed an index finger at her and said “don’t you dare do it!”. An impressive display of authority. Which reminds me of the night the drunk girl kept invading the microphone to sing along, until the bartender had enough and actually tackled her during a final stage rush. Athleticism of this sort you rarely see anywhere, much less at 1:30am.
So that’s that I guess. Just felt like getting this out there. The next Friday or Saturday night you crash early, take a moment and think of the music being laid down in bars near and far (real music by real live people) and the folks that music was created for.
In a bit..