Before the Shelter Island Memorial Day parade began from the Center Firehouse on its way toward Wilson Circle, Islanders and visitors of all generations began lining both sides along Route 114 and on the median.
Cloudless blue skies, mild temperatures and a strong breeze set flags fluttering or standing straight all over town. Kate Davidson was with her 6-month-old daughter, Marley, on the grassy median, a tiny American Flag attached proudly to Marley’s stroller. Ms. Davidson said she and her family come every year to “show local pride and celebrate the day.”
She and Marley were soon joined by her husband Matt and their other daughter Aisley. Asked how old she was, Aisley replied that she was 11. And asked how many Memorial Day parades she had attended, she smiled, and said 11.
Tanya Jones, a former resident — “I come back as often as I can” — was waiting for a friend near the Post Office. She loves the parade, she said, and the meaning of the day. “It’s good to remember those who remembered us with their service.” It was a day for everyone to “elevate, communicate and celebrate,” Ms. Jones said.
Virginia Walker, taking a seat near the Library, said Memorial Day brings on strong emotions. “I weep when I read the names,” she said, speaking of those Islanders who were killed in action in conflicts from the Civil War to Afghanistan.“I think of every small town across America that is doing what Shelter Island is doing today,” Ms. Walker said. She spoke of shared sacrifice and how “all of America comes together.”
Rituals require structure and consistency, performing the same rites at specific times, to pass along the meaning of significant occasions from generation to generation.
Shelter Island’s Memorial Day has filled that bill every year on the last weekend in May, and Monday was no different, beginning, as always, at 8 a.m. at Piccozzi’s dock on Bridge Street, with the Lost at Sea Ceremony.
A wreath was thrown into the water and an honor guard gave a 21-gun salute. John Kerr & Company performed the Navy Hymn, and Taps was played on the bugle by Lenny Mastrogiacomo.
Marching Through the Center
The parade stepped off from the Firehouse at precisely 10 a.m., led by a uniformed color guard, followed by members of the American Legion Auxiliary. Several ancient Fire Department vehicles in mint condition rolled down Route 114 carrying veterans who received appreciative rounds of applause as they passed.
Scouts marched proudly and the Daughters of the American Revolution were in step. Receiving the strongest applause were Fire Department members in dress uniforms along with the Ladies Auxiliary and members of the Island’s Emergency Medical Services.
On the porch of American Legion Mitchell Post 281 at Wilson circle — named in honor of Islander Sgt. James Wilson Jr., who died in Vietnam in October 1967 — Commander Michael (Zack) Mundy, presiding over his first Memorial Day as Commander of the Legion, welcomed the gathering crowd, which had swelled to about 350 people.
Sara Mundy gave a strikingly beautiful rendition of the National Anthem, her clear voice ringing through the silence of the Center. The crowd began to sing along, their voices beginning as a soft, rolling murmur, but grew stronger as the verses proceeded.
Father Charles McCarron, pastor of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, gave the Invocation, asking that “we gather ourselves,” and escape for a while “the barbecues, the sales, the traffic jams, and quiet our hearts.” He asked for “peace and justice among the nations,” and to “never break faith with the fallen.”
In Flanders Fields
American Legion Auxiliary President Rita Gates delivered a speech on the significance of poppies on Memorial Day. “The Red Poppy is a symbol that goes back decades,” Ms. Gates said, beginning in World War I, when poppies bloomed in battlefields in France and Belgium.
The poppy was immortalized by Canadian Colonel John McCrae, who became aware of vivid red poppies blooming everywhere in a makeshift military graveyard as he mourned a friend.
“The changed chemistry of lime-enriched soil of wartime enabled a striking sea of red poppies to grow in the unlikeliest places,” Ms. Gates said, appearing “around shelled buildings and in scarred landscapes. Even between the crosses on Flanders Fields.”
Colonel McCrae was inspired to write the immortal poem of loss and remembrance, “In Flanders Fields,” which Ms. Gates recited on Monday.
The poem ends: “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 …
“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, though poppies grow/ In Flanders fields.”
A final goodbye
Ms. Gates was followed by Col. Frank Kestler, U.S. Army Ret., who gave a stirring address about sacrifice, with another connection to the poppy.
Speaking about Lt. Joseph Thienert, Col. Kestler said, “On June 4, 2010 our son, Joe, made the ultimate sacrifice while leading his platoon of men on a combat mission in Southern Afghanistan … a graduate of Shelter Island High School, he loved to serve, in student government, at the American Legion Boys’ State, in the poppy fields of the Dand District.”
He told a story that, he said, “is not widely known,” of receiving a final letter from Lt. Thienert a year after he was killed. “It was the only document left on his army computer after the military had washed everything else off it — the letter had finally made its way to us. Joe’s letter was addressed to his brother, family and close friends on Shelter Island. He started it off by saying, “If you’re reading this letter, things didn’t go as I had planned.’”
Col. Kestler said the letter asked his family not “to mourn too long,” and wanted to be remembered, the colonel said, “as the man and leader he was trying to be. Joe was selfless, self-sacrificing, mindful, and as I stated, loved to serve.”
A few years after Joe’s death, Col. Kestler said, he went to Afghanistan, and the field where Lt. Thienert had died. He prayed on his knees with some American soldiers “all Joe’s age or younger,” he said, and took away some dirt from the field. Afterwards, back at a small combat outpost, one of the young soldiers who had been on the mission, came up to Col. Kestler and said, “Well, sir, I guess that’s closure for you.
“I replied, ‘It’s only the beginning.’”
He mentioned the Strongpoint Thienert Ranch in New Mexico, a retreat center for veterans and their families. “Please keep us in your thoughts and prayers,” Col Kestler said, “as we hike the hills and mountain tops that I first hiked with Joe.”
Father Peter DeSanctis then read the names of the 18 Islanders killed in action from the Civil War to Afghanistan.
Rev. Stephen Adkinson, pastor of the Presbyterian Church, gave a final prayer for the fallen, and concluded with the hope of a “union of goodwill from all nations to seek an end to violence around the globe.”
A 21-gun salute was fired, the first reports making everyone flinch for a second.
The crowd then moved to the lawn of the Community Center for lunch, courtesy of the Lions Club, with happy voices rising, and children running.