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Memorial Day has community, personal significance

WORTHINGTON — There will be no Memorial Day parade at Worthington on Monday. For one thing, those band kids are needed at their jobs on holiday weekends.

Worthington once had Memorial Day parades. A standard parade unit in the 1940s and 1950s was Reuben Hurd and Frank Pothast riding side by side in the back of a convertible dressed in their Sunday suits with white shirts and neckties. Reuben was Worthington’s last Civil War veteran, and Frank was Worthington’s last Spanish American war veteran. Somewhere through the passing years Worthington had a last World War I veteran. That man, whoever he may have been, was never honored, never paraded, never featured in a photo in the Daily Globe. I don’t know why this is so.

The junior high band would make its first parade appearance on Memorial Day, and the senior band would be at the end of the line of march to lead the crowd out to Chautauqua Park for a concert featuring “Colonel Bogey” and “Washington Post” and “Stars and Stripes Forever.” A little plane from the municipal airport also flew low and dropped a wreath in the lake near the bandshell.

Maybe the brightest spot in the Memorial Day parades was the American Legion Drum and Bugle Corps. My, were they something. The Legionnaires wore World War I-style military helmets of brass so shiny the sun reflected off them. The men had blue wool uniforms with gold piping, and they wore polished boots reaching nearly to their knees. Dr. Ralph Gruye, a Worthington dentist, was drum major. Around City Hall the word was a couple of the guys usually had too much to drink, but few ever knew this. In a point of fact, Worthington’s Drum and Bugle Corps won the title in state competitions two or three times.

I heard a couple of people grousing that, “Memorial Day isn’t what it used to be.” True. This doesn’t bother me much. I mean, we salute our veterans on Armed Forces Day and Flag Day and Veterans Day and sometimes V-E Day and V-J Day. Special anniversaries. And the Fourth of July.

The newspapers Tuesday will report the nation stopped to honor its war dead on Monday. There will be pictures of a firing squad or a child kneeling to place flowers on a veteran’s grave. Actually, most of us will decorate graves of family members — husbands and wives and fathers and mothers and sons and daughters. A nation can’t be faulted for setting aside a day for such remembrance.

Memorial Day always brings to mind one of my favorite Civil War stories. You will guess I am “ancestor bragging.” This is not the case.

On the first day at Gettysburg the 143rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry became engaged in an exchange of rifle fire at about 11 a.m. By noon there was a full-scale confrontation. Both sides called up artillery. The infantrymen pressed themselves into shallow trenches and exchanged volleys through much of the afternoon, until about 4 p.m.

By that hour the Confederates had forced the regiment on the right of the 143rd to fall back. They then pushed back the regiment on the left. The Pennsylvania boys now were engaged on the front and on both flanks. Col. Roy Stone ordered his Pennsylvanians to fall back.

Well — the color sergeant — six-feet-one and fair haired, bearing the stars and stripes with a special gold fringe — the color sergeant took the retreat order grudgingly. He rose, waved his flag and then shook a fist at the Confederates. Finally he took several steps back and then turned and waved his flag another time and shook his fist once again. Finally the Rebels shot him, of course.

I like this story because the color sergeant was Ben Crippen. But — no — people in the family who trace genealogy say Ben is no forebear of mine. He is no more related than Ben Johnson or Ben Anderson. He was a brave soldier, however, and he was dedicated to saving the Union.

If one day you visit Gettysburg, look for the memorial which salutes the 143rd Pennsylvanians. The image of Sergeant Ben waving his flag and shaking his fist is carved on that monument.

Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.