Atop the War Memorial in the Village Green, I planted my feet in a V, held out my arms and tipped my face to the sun, a five-point star next to the flag pole. The flag snapped, the white and blue merging with the clouds that scuttled across the vivid sky. I saw only the red stripes waving. Dizzy, I lay on the cool white marble, wondering if I was desecrating what I believed to be the final resting place of the war heroes whose names were etched in growing rows. In case I’d offended, I gave mental thanks for their sacrifice and my freedom.
Every Memorial Day throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, I shared my private place of peace. What must have been all 12,000 of Winnetka’s citizens shoehorned into the Village Green around the cenotaph. We listened to the names of fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, grandfathers and uncles who had died in the Civil War, World War I, World War II and the Korean War. In an agony of dread, I stuffed my fingers in my ears to block the subsequent 21 cracks of the rifle that reverberated, ricocheting off the surrounding elms and lindens. I felt an unconscious kinship with those we honored, some of whom rested in the countries where they fell, whose final memories were the sound of gunfire.
Each Memorial Day since 1927, the Winnetka War Memorial has called neighbors to the Village Green. Although it was built to honor the 10 local men who died in World War I, the names of fallen men and women from subsequent wars continue to be etched in marble. In small towns across the United States where generations are connected, people remember. On Memorial Day, there’s a poignancy in paying tribute to our neighbors who made the ultimate sacrifice. Yet, we take some measure of comfort in the words World War I solder Dinsmore Ely wrote in a letter home that is inscribed in the memorial: “It is an investment not a loss when a man dies for his country.”
I wish it were an investment we would never have to make.