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Solemn and full of meaning: A scaled back Memorial Day

At 9:20 a.m. on Monday, about 40 minutes before the Memorial Day ceremonies would begin, the Center, from the Firehouse down to Wilson Circle, was mostly empty of people.

The unusually chilly, damp, gray day had little to do with it — in other years conditions similar to Monday’s weather hadn’t stopped crowds from forming early, with Boy and Girl scouts and Brownies eagerly awaiting marching orders in the Chase Bank’s parking lot, and antique cars that would carry veterans attracting crowds. Families would be staking out prime spots on either side of North Ferry Road and on the grass divider for the parade as the High School band tuned up to play patriotic marches.

But Monday morning, before the 2021 parade stepped off and speakers took to the microphone, there were no sounds of voices or activity, only a deep quiet, with the flag at half-staff in front of the Firehouse moving slowly in the cool breezes. An enormous flag, hung from a Fire Department’s extension ladder over North Ferry Road, was gently filling, rippling, and spilling the wind in the silence.

Councilman Jim Colligan, the master of ceremonies, told the crowd later that plans for Memorial Day were made weeks ago, when the COVID-19 pandemic on the Island was in a much more dangerous phase, and plans for the traditional rites of Memorial Day had been drastically scaled back.

This Memorial Day, just as Veterans Day last November, the center divide of North Ferry Road held placards honoring the 19 Shelter Islanders killed in action or who otherwise lost their lives in America’s wars. Some Island veterans who have passed away were also honored with placards.

Even with a reduced schedule and less people attending, anyone you spoke with said 2021 was a significant year, when the parade and ceremonies were back in-person, unlike 2020, when the only way Islanders could take part was on one side of a video monitor.

The traditional Lost at Sea ceremony on Bridge Street and the ritual of throwing a wreath from Piccozzi’s Dock was carried out. Heather Reylek, a member of the Legion Auxiliary, said a strong, cold wind off Dering Harbor didn’t take away the meaning of the event for those who attended.

Tradition was the official order of the day, but there were personal rites observed as well. Sharon Gibbs and her daughter, Emily, settled in the spot “we always take,” said Ms. Gibbs, a former Shelter Island School teacher. It was near the library’s entrance.

Always this same spot? “Always,” Emily, 29, smiled. “We’ve never been in a different place,” she said, “from as long as I can remember.”

Her mother was thinking of Sid Beckwith, a veteran and her great uncle, who passed away a year ago last May, and of her uncle, Frank Beckwith. “He served three tours in Vietnam,” Ms. Gibbs said, and died years after his service from complications of exposure to Agent Orange, the defoliant used in Vietnam as part of the “herbicidal warfare” program.

Ms. Gibbs said Memorial Day was about remembering, and she was keeping in mind, among others, James Wilson Jr., a friend of the family and the sole member of the military from Shelter Island to die in Vietnam.

Emily said Memorial Day was a day “to remember all those who served and sacrificed their lives for us.” She also noted it was a family day, of get-togethers, where people could remember together. Her mother put in, “We had a barbecue yesterday, but inside. We had three generations.”

“Four,” her daughter corrected, and they smiled, thinking of a family that keeps growing.

Farther up the road, Rose Wissemann sat on a bench, knitting a long, white scarf and waiting for the parade to begin. Across from her, on the center strip, was a placard naming her late husband, Charles, a Navy veteran. Her son, Gunnar, a Marine veteran, told her, “Now, don’t cry,” when he took a picture of the placard.

Ms. Wissemann said she didn’t cry, but was filled with memories of her husband, and “all the men and women who served. They were afraid, I’m sure, but gave everything.”

Memorial Day, no matter the weather, was always the same, Ms. Wissemann said. “We remember.”

With the bells of the Presbyterian Church tolling the 10 o’clock hour, the parade stepped off from School Street in front of American Legion Mitchell Post 281 led by an honor guard  of veterans and four Islanders in uniform: Marines Michael Mundy, Sean Clark, Mitchell Clark and Army Private First Class Isabella Sherman. Another Marine, Private First Class Dan Martin, escorted Gold Star Mother Chrys Kestler.

Joining the parade in a 1960’s era Cadillac convertible, was Robert Strugats, a combat veteran of World War II. Members of the American Legion’s Auxiliary marched, along with representatives from the Daughters of the American Revolution, and Fire Department and Emergency Medical Services volunteers. They all received applause from the crowd that ringed the area in front of the flagpole of the Legion Post.

Wreaths were laid at the five large, sand-colored boulders set in shrubbery that ring the flag pole. They hold plaques with names, starting with the boulder closest to Bateman Street, which reads: “Veterans of Shelter Island after 1975 Lebanon/Grenada Panama Gulf War/War On Terrorism.” The other boulders are dedicated to veterans of the “Vietnam Conflict,” “Korean Conflict,” and “World War II.” Across School Street is a boulder with a plaque that reads: “Dedicated to those from Shelter Island who answered their country’s call to fight for World Wide Liberty 1917-1919.”

Mr. Colligan noted that the Island had lost some World War II veterans in the past two years, plus other community members from the pandemic. “We remember them all today,” Mr. Colligan said.

Father Charles McCarron, pastor of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, gave the invocation. He said, “Today is sacred,” and spoke of the “almost visible presence of those who gave their lives for us.”

Ms. Kestler spoke to the gathering about the meaning of being a Gold Star Mother and joining “a club no one wants to belong to.”

Her son, Army First Lt. Joseph Theinert, 24, of the 10th Mountain Division, died on June 4, 2010, disabling the second of two improvised explosive devices that threatened his unit. Just before the explosion that killed him, he ordered the 20 men under his command out of the area to safety.

Ms. Kestler said, “Today is a tough day for many of us,” and that with the anniversary of her son’s death fast approaching, it would be an especially difficult time, as always. But she said that the Shelter Island community has always supported her, and other veterans’ families, which has helped her over the years.

She noted that her granddaughter, Brooke, 8, had said the night before how much she was looking forward to the Memorial Day holiday and how much fun she would have. Ms. Kestler told her that, yes, holidays are fun, but Memorial Day is a solemn day and she would be a little sad.

“Brooke said, ‘Everything has a sad side and a happy side. Live on the happy side.’”

Ms. Kestler finished by saying, “Always remember. Always honor. And I’m going to live on the happy side.”

Father Peter DeSanctis, pastor of Our Lady of the Isle, read the names of the Islanders killed in action: Robert J. Congdon, Zebulon B. Glover, Randolph C. Griffing, J. Madison Hempstead, Charles H. Haven, Joseph Howard, Hudson Sylvester Nicoll, Henry Martin Mitchell, Charles W. Avona, Arthur Dickerson, Robert Winberg,, Herbert Howard Power, Carl (Ed) Conrad, John W. Sanwald Jr., Raymond C. Dickerson, Julius J. Scholtz, James Wilson, Joseph J. Theinert.

Reverend Robert Griffin, pastor of the Shelter Island Presbyterian Church,  gave a short prayer, quoting from the Gospel of John: “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

Linda Bonaccorso sang the National Anthem, with the crowd singing along, their voices hushed, beginning as a soft, rolling murmur, but gradually growing stronger and clearer. Tanya Schmid, a graduate of Shelter Island High School, played a mournful rendition of “Taps” on her trumpet.

The honor guard fired a 21-gun salute, the quiet after the loud reports so deep that the metallic sound of the shell casings hitting the pavement could be heard.