It’s one of those beautiful days of spring. In Minnesota, that’s reason enough to
celebrate. But this is Memorial Day – a day when we take flowers to cemeteries and make
time to honor those who died defending our freedoms and protecting our way of life. While
luxuriating in our freedom to roam this magnificent country, I have discovered it’s in our
small towns where Memorial Day becomes intimately American.
I am in Preston, a
no-traffic-light county seat in Southeastern Minnesota that dates to 1853. Iowa is 15 miles
south of here, and Wisconsin is to the east about 60 miles. So just by geographic
placement, you’re right in guessing that this is farm country.
But this is also the land of
hardwood forests, wild turkey, white-tail deer, trout streams, apple orchards, Amish
settlements, limestone cliffs, morel mushrooms, bike trails, massive barns, flat corn
fields, tall silos and multigeneration Americans who trace their roots mostly to Ireland
It was a little after 10, on this picture-perfect morning, when we gathered at
the hilltop cemetery. Freshly cut grass had left the air smelling sweet and earthy. A
breeze ruffled the flags held by the honor guard of the Preston Servicemen’s Club in
formation waiting for us. Everywhere, flowers at grave sites stood as reminders of personal
On the grass off to one side, five teenage girls sat in a circle obviously just
enjoying being teenage girls. Perhaps accompanying family members here, they where
respectfully not much interested in this graveside ceremony. And why should they be? They
are kids after all. That day will come too soon in their lives when they will be interested
and probably involved.
Two members of the Servicemen’s Club read the names alphabetically
of the 398 local boys and men, now gone, who fought in our country’s wars.
Many of the last
names were the same – brothers maybe, or fathers and sons. Then again, they may have died
in wars of different generations, or perhaps they were not even related. This day we were
honoring not just who they were, but the sacrifice that each one had made – a bond that
they did not choose, but now share for eternity.
As the names were read, each was honored
with a simple Buddy Poppy. It was placed on a commemorative board by two girls wearing the
brown badge scarf of a local Girl Scout Brownie troop.
Hearing their names, I wondered
about their ages when they died. Having seen one war – Vietnam – I know in war it’s always
the young who die.
We walked down the hill from the cemetery and crossed the bridge over
the Root River. I stopped there and watched three men with fishing gear launch their canoe
from the riverbank. Trout was what they were after. The Root is full of them.
water from its tributaries, the Root meanders slowly across this part of Minnesota. It
empties eventually into the Mississippi. Over the centuries of flooding and finding new
paths along its way, the Root has created towering bluffs of limestone now topped with tall
trees of pine and hardwoods. This is beautiful country.
I am sure those young guys whom we
honored today looked forward to coming back to get some of those trout, and to enjoy this
wonderful place. I know it’s because of what they did, and thousands like them, that today
I am able to do just that.
Welcome to America’s Outback.
Bill’s e-mail address: [email protected]