Neptune Park, St. Simons Island, Georgia.
In this place for many years multitudes of a cross-section of diverse Americans celebrate Taps at Twilight in remembrance of Memorial Day. We come to pay tribute to those who have died in service to our country, as well as honor those living who have served in our preservation of liberty. It’s a humble and solemn occasion.
“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our places, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.”
The annual event is organized by the St. Simons Island Rotary Club. The Golden Isles Community Band resurrects John Phillip Sousa for a short concert of his militaristic music. We can imagine him directing the band. The enthusiastic music is rousing. We march along with them, waving our tiny American flags in time with the music.
Picnics are everywhere. Smoke from barbeque wafts across the lawn. Our own ravenous crowd usually numbers about twenty-five. We gather around several tables covered with red checkered tablecloths and feast on fried chicken, sandwiches of cucumber, pimento cheese and pineapple, all on white bread (the edges removed in true Southern tradition). There’s more: deviled eggs, guacamole dip, fruit and unlimited desserts.
Throngs of patriotic Americans pack the entire lawn of Neptune Park. We face the rotunda where engraved bricks with the names of the beloved fallen remind us of our heritage. Standing alone in the center is a flagpole. Our flag, the enduring symbol of national unity, is alive. It waves freely in the breeze. It’s the central focus of all eyes.
As the day drifts down towards dusk, a Spirit floats on the coastal breeze and moves among the crowd. It swells, then hushes, then blows again. A profound stillness descends upon the multitude. Laughing voices of children ring in the distance. They add new life to the solemnity of the gathering.
“We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.”
This same Spirit blows amid the graves of patriots everywhere. It’s we, the living, who are restless. The honored dead lie peacefully in the earth now. Their names, dates and events mark their final resting places. What survive are their names, our memories and the ideal of Freedom. The Freedom that beats in every living heart was purchased by the blood of our countrymen. This same Freedom, we pray, will continue to survive long after we, the living, are gone. We have our names; we have only borrowed the dust.
Like our warriors, we live for a purpose…a common devotion for freedom and brotherhood. We hear this theme from every speaker who ever came to memorialize the occasion.
At twilight we witness the Retirement of the Colors. The crowd is breathlessly silent. The flag is lowered, gently folded, itself soon to be laid to rest in the darkness of the night.
A mournful trumpet then sounds the three simple notes of ‘Taps,’ or Lights Out or Gone the Sun. In the distance its fading echo descends gently upon the declining day.
Three simple notes close this day, but another three notes will renew the morrow. Like death and resurrection, tomorrow’s bugle call is Reveille, accompanied by a cannon’s retort. It’s a rousing ‘get-em-up’ tune as the flag is again raised atop the naked flagpole. It will again personify our nation’s glorious past, its hopeful future and our enduring commitment to freedom.
So we will say goodnight to the Spirit here. The day is finished. Picnic baskets, tables and chairs are packed, and the crowd disperses, somber in the memory of the occasion. Yet it departs unsettled, knowing that our nation’s struggle for freedom continues.
“Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep…”
The spirits of our departed comrades are watching. Will our generation join them in the preservation of our ideals?
“In Flanders fields the poppies blow…”
And in Neptune Park on Memorial Day, the voices of our children’s spirits sing the sweet song of Liberty.
May 31, 2021
(Thanks to John McCrae for the use of his poem, “In Flanders Fields”)