Parades don’t have to be elaborate to make a point | As I See It

Veterans participating in the Friday Harbor Memorial Day Parade. - Journal file photo
Veterans participating in the Friday Harbor Memorial Day Parade.
— image credit: Journal file photo

By John Levesque

Seattle Business Magazine

I like May. My wife’s birthday is in May. Our wedding anniversary is in May. And Memorial Day is in May.

Memorial Day makes me think of my dad, a World War II veteran, and my older brother, a Vietnam War veteran. It makes me think of my childhood, when I lived near a little park where each year the parade would stop for a short dedication. And it makes me think of community.

These days, we usually spend the Memorial Day weekend in Friday Harbor with a good friend. As anyone who spends time in the San Juans knows, the weather in late May is iffy at best, but our visit wouldn’t be complete without the Friday Harbor Memorial Day parade.

Calling it a parade is a stretch. Compared to Friday Harbor’s Fourth of July parade, an honest-to-goodness, all-hands-on-deck affair, the Memorial Day parade is the definition of understatement. Where the Fourth of July parade is a riotous bouquet of summer blossoms, the Memorial Day parade is a single crêpe-paper poppy in the buttonhole of our memories.

Most years, the Friday Harbor Memorial Day parade is over in less than half an hour. I know people who have arrived late and missed it. It comprises a couple bands of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, a few cars carrying dignitaries, a group of townsmen in military garb harking back to the 1850s — the time of the celebrated Pig War on San Juan Island — and a woman dressed in black and clutching a folded American flag. As she reaches Memorial Park at the foot of Spring Street, the “war widow” pauses to pay her respects to a veteran from each branch of the military service.

Memorial DayThe veterans are seated under two spectacular elm trees anchoring the tiny park. (The trees, planted in 1922, commemorate the soldiers and sailors from San Juan Island who did not return from World War I.) In years past, this group of veterans would include an elderly Canadian, a veteran of the Royal Canadian Air Force if I remember correctly, who would take a couple of buses and a couple of ferries to get to Friday Harbor from his home in Victoria, British Columbia. A few years ago, the Canadian gentleman stopped coming. I could guess the reason, but I asked around just to be sure. I had guessed right.

The commander of the local American Legion post presides over the program. He cues the recorded music — a medley of hymns and fight songs from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard — and introduces the person who will sing the national anthem. Some years, there’s a guest speaker. But not always. A high school student reads the poem, In Flanders Fields. A squad from the Legion post fires a rifle salute. (Dogs howl, babies cry.) Children toss wreaths into the harbor. A pipe band plays Amazing Grace. A bugler plays taps.

The event never fails to put a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye. It is simple, homespun and resolutely comfortable, like a favorite blanket. Not an ounce of pretension. Just a heaping helping of civic engagement.

This event happens because of people who care — both the volunteers who put it on every year and the visitors who would be disappointed if it ever went away. It’s the sort of community “business” that extends well beyond the checkout line and the cash register of a tourist town — all the way to the heart and soul of who we are and what we cherish most.

— Editor’s note: John Levesque is managing editor of Seattle Business magazine, where this column originally appeared. Reprinted by permission.


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