PEPPERELL — The clock atop the Community Church had just struck 10 when the Memorial Day parade came marching up Main Street, led by a Marine color guard and announced by the snappy drums and marching music of the Nissitissit Middle School Band.
Among the marchers were servicemen and women, past and present. Some who served in other military eras wore vintage uniforms with pride. The local Scouts, the Fire Department, American Legion Post 3291 and the VFW were all represented. The parade line-up also included local dignitaries and politicians.
It was Grand Marshall, retired Army Sgt. Major Robert Griffis, who did double duty as commander of the VFW firing team.
Before gathering on the common, the parade turned onto Park Street and into the cemetery to conduct a short ceremony and lay a wreath. Due to an coordination mix-up, the auxiliary member slated to lay the wreath was too far back, so Marilyn Milan Kab (Mrs. Sam Kab) was asked to fill in. “I’m honored,” she said. They live out of state now, she said, but her history is in Pepperell. On cue came three volleys from the firing squad — sharp reports under a clear blue sky. A bugler played Taps.
On the common, in front of the church, master of ceremonies Paul Raikey, past VFW Commander, initiated the speaking program, first recognizing active-duty personnel “here and abroad, protecting our freedom.” He recounted a story told by Rev. Priscilla Lawrence, pastor of the Community Church, about a WW II veteran who had lost an arm. When someone said they were sorry, the man replied that he had not lost the arm, but had given it. “That’s what service is all about,” Raikey said.
Rev. Lawrence offered an opening prayer. “Bless us all, including the brave men and women ready to lay down their lives for liberty and righteousness in our behalf,” she said.
Speakers were Board of Selectmen Chairman Lyndon Johnson and state Rep. Robert Hargraves.
“I wish I could tell you the country is not at war, but I cannot,” Johnson began. Citing the “1787 document known as the Constitution,” and its famous framers, he said American men and women have died to defend its tenets ever since. The freedom to worship in churches, such as the one behind him, are thanks to their sacrifices, he said.
Noting symbols of freedom such as the flag of the United States of America, he said many have died to protect it. Memorial Day is “a day set aside to remember them” and to reflect on the fact that freedom is not free, he said.
Johnson called for perspective. While relaxing later in the backyard, talking politics with friends, or sometime after a bad day, pause to think of the young men and women “thousands of miles away” who are risking their lives and may never come home, he said. And of their families and the sacrifices they are making for the nation.
Hargraves praised the “great turnout” for the parade and a hand-made sign some young people carried that read “Thank You Vets. Freedom is not free.”
“It took work to make that sign,” Hargraves said. “You really see Americana here. It’s wonderful.”
Memorial Day was first observed, nationally, in Waterloo, N.Y., in May 1886, Hargraves said. It was originally called Decoration Day, when flowers were laid on the graves of Civil War soldiers. Its purpose is to “honor fallen heroes who paid the ultimate price,” he said. But it was not until 1967 that the significance of the day was broadened to recognize those who died in World War II, he said.
In 1973, Congress passed a law that made Memorial Day into a “long weekend,” he said, that means parties, cookouts, and weekend get-aways. Hargraves called for a “return to the true meaning” of the holiday by returning Memorial Day to single-day status, naming May 30 as the date.
Memorial Day is losing its solemnity, in Hargraves’ view. So many of today’s military men and women are still sacrificing their lives, while others are “coming home maimed, with shattered lives. They deserve to be remembered,” he said. “That’s the least we can do.”
The ceremony ended with a wreath laying by VFW Commander Joseph Moore and Ladies Auxiliary President Kathy Harris, to the strains of “America the Beautiful,” a three-volley salute by the VFW firing team and the playing of Taps — with its haunting echo — by student buglers Frances Phillips and James Richardson.
The parade and ceremonies at cemeteries were the culmination of observances that began the previous Friday in Pepperell’s schools and North Middlesex Regional High School. Current and former service members ate and talked with students and attended the increasingly well-known student presentations.
The conclusion at Varnum Brook School was particularly poignant, climaxing with a five to seven-minute standing ovation from the student body leaving few dry eyes among the veterans.
On Saturday some 50 to 60 Scouts of all ages, led by VFW Post 3291 officers, set out flags before the graves of every veteran buried in the town’s three cemeteries following a presentation by Regent Eleanor Gavazzi attired in Revolutionary-era costume inside the Prudence Wright Daughters of the American Revolution chapter house.