Veteran's Day 1970 - 14 November 1970

On the very first Armistice Day, I was up early, took three lengths of what I think we called "cartridge paper" and glued them together as a long continuous scroll.

I’d spent all the previous day copying on to these pages, in script, the entire armistice terms as they had been printed in the papers. By 10.30, or thereabouts, I carefully rolled up the scroll as you would roll up wallpaper, and I tied it with a red, white and blue ribbon and fastened it with a small brass safety pin.

I was now ready for the great occasion. I was rather hazy about what this was to be, but we had been told that at eleven o’clock all the church bells would be set to ringing and that was the time to be out on the streets.

My mother was dressed and ready, and just before the hour we sallied forth into the briny air. The bells rang out and I marched around, clutching my mother’s right hand with my left, and clutching in my right hand the fateful scroll – the armistice terms, which, I imagine I expected at some unstated time,to deliver to Mr Lloyd George or Monsieur Clemenceau or Marshal Foch, if any of them should appear.

It now seems unlikely to me that any of them would suddenly show up on Blackpool Promenade, though they would have had a rousing cheer from the American soldiers who were still drilling there, on the sands, the official word apparently not having got through that their services would no longer be required. All I can remember now is the extraordinary blitheness of the occasion. Not delirium or euphoria, too many million men had been lost for that and there were too many women in black around to let you forget it, but an air of benevolence and health as if the whole pollution had emerged from a spanking ten hours of sleep.

People nodded to each other, and strangers doffed their hats, in a subdued way, to the ladies in black. But there is one memory that zooms out of that distant day like a comet. My mother had promised me that, on the way home, we should stop at a pastrycooks and buy something that we might not need, something with which to celebrate the day.

I don’t know what she had in mind or what I had expected, because all we had seen in the pastrycooks window, for months, for years, was the grey bread we had come to look on as the staff of life.

But when we came to look in the window, I was struck speechless, which even at that age was for me, something of a trauma. There, on one of those cut-glass cake stands, which I had come to think of as routine ornaments in their own right, like sconces or candelabra, there, sitting in the middle of a cake stand, was – I had no word to describe it, but my mother knew it was a cake.

It was a very small, round bun, but the staggering, the magical thing about it was that it was covered with a layer of pink snow. It was called, I was told, icing. I had never seen such a thing before. We went inside to purchase this jewel, but we were told it was not for sale. It was there for show, as a beacon, pointing to the good life to come.

Well, I hope that your handkerchief is not drenched at this little memoir. I recall it because it may explain the mixed feelings I have about something that happened in New York last Wednesday, which as you know was 11 November. For many years, perhaps for all the years between the wars, Americans too called it Armistice Day.

And then, it seems to me, it was called nothing, there was no pause at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day, no great silence in the cities – it was simply abandoned. But, in the last few years, it has been revived here, as Veterans Day, the day when you are supposed to honour all the dead in all the American wars.

I am wrong in saying the observance has been abandoned, or had been. Even when the day had no name, small contingents of the army West Point cadets, marines, the police and the firemen marched down Fifth Avenue, and something of the same sort has been done for the past 52 years in all the states, but there is no doubt that the occasion has lost a good deal of its sombreness and its dignity.

President Nixon was on his way to Paris, so he appointed an official who deals with veterans affairs to go to Arlington, the national military cemetery, and put a wreath on the tomb of the unknown soldier. In New York, as across most of the Atlantic seaboard, there was the warm, driving rain. And a peculiar thing happened.

The march is always lead by the United States First Army Band. At ten in the morning, the band was sitting well wrapped up in a bus, waiting for the downpour to lighten. At 10.30, the parade began without the army band. They apparently decided the weather was too rough for them. One of them said later, "the rain would have spoiled our instruments particularly the woodwinds". But he didn’t strengthen his case by saying, "besides, we have a lot of other jobs to do you know".

Anyway, the army called it quits before the ceremony began, and some of the organising officials went into a mild depression, at the thought that there might, after all, be no parade, no observance at all. It was saved by another band.

On the west side, on the corner of 96th Street, there is a church, the Church of the Holy Name. It too, has a band, a parish band, it has 50 members, the great majority of them negro, or Puerto Rican. They are all poor. They have been working for months to try and raise money to buy a standard uniform, as it is they wear old blazers, odd military coats they have picked up at hippy clothing stores, sneakers, gym shoes.

When they gathered on Wednesday morning, their pastor looked at the pelting skies and told them if not to forget it, he suggested that they had better play in the church and skip the parade. He mentioned the word "pneumonia". They greeted this warning with shouts and jokes. They are mostly in their early teens, a few of them are as old as seven or eight.

They mobilised in a jiffy and they stalked over to the east side and they made their skirling, weird enthusiastic music. And pretty soon the word spread down the avenue that the stars of the parade were a bunchy of nutty kids blowing out their cheeks and whirling baton, and banging drums, slushing along in shoes like paper, and loving it.

I do not wish to draw any heavy or even regretful moral from this odd scene. I am fairly sure the army band will hear more about it. And I am sure, too, it would be fanciful to believe that the youngsters were animated by a fierce burst of patriotism which could not be dampened by a rainstorm, they were no doubt simply having a wonderful time having Fifth Avenue all to themselves, with a surprised and eventually cheering audience on hand.

But we seem to have reached a strange and embarrassing period in the history of patriotism. There was even more embarassing scenes at Hunter College on Park Avenue, and I am sorry to say it got more night-time exposure on the networks than the stomping of the Holy Name band.

A group of conservative students at the college arranged an indoor ceremony called "A salute to our veterans". It was inevitable that student leftists should hear about it, and disrupt it. They outnumbered the conservatives by about four to one and the ceremony, which consisted of the pledge of allegiance to the flag, a prayer, a speech by a state senator, and then, by a marine veteran of Vietnam.

The ceremony can never be said to have got underway, it was performed in the teeth of boos and catcalls, and the usual obscenities. When the flag was raised, the dissidents raised their own banners, denouncing the war and the president. And while about 50 square young people put their hands on their hearts, as the pledge of allegiance calls for, 100 of the others raised the clenched fist.

When the Vietnam veteran came on, a stringy and nervous man, and tried to say something about his treatment as a prisoner of war, they gave the Nazi salute and chanted "Sieg Heil". The whole thing broke up in a ferment of insults and seething temper on both sides.

My own feeling about these scenes is bewildered, very like Lord Clark's feeling about contemporary art. I seem to remember him saying that he’d spent a lifetime looking at pictures and trying to understand 500 years of painting and he simply did not know what most contemporary art was trying to say.

It must be very satisfying to have a true and instant reaction, say, that if a man joins an army band, he should expect to have to play in bad weather. Or, conservative groups should not bait the leftists by staging anything so provocative as a salute to the flag.

I forego, as a practical matter, such solutions which occur to some of the old as horse whippings and bottom smackings. O, which occur to some of the young, that Veterans Day should be abolished. All that I can see at the moment is a vast and wasteful amount of muddle-headedness.

Veterans Day is not intended to propagandise the Vietnam war, nor indeed, war itself. It is a small tribute, however regretful, to the men of the first war and the second and Korea and Vietnam, and other places. Maybe these men were deluded, but the time to say so is surely not over their graves. What disturbs me is not the protest rallies, they have their essential place. But the use of a wild, bad-mannered protest directed against the wrong men – namely, against the dead.

Patriotism may indeed be the last refuge of a scoundrel, and I recall that more cynical remark of the sage of Baltimore, "When a man praises his country in public, he expects to be paid for it".

I am sure that in some places on Wednesday the negative offensiveness of many of the young leftists was matched by the positive offensiveness of many of the rightists, who were also using the innocent dead to exploit the living.

But in Hunter College all one saw was a group of orderly people trying to hold a straightforward, old-fashioned traditional ceremony, which if you scorn it, it is easy to stay away from. And on the other side, faces bloated with hate and rage at, I suggest, the wrong time.

I think of Bernard Shaw’s definition of indecency, "matter out of place". To put it mildly, the obscenities had no place in the silence that was meant to honour men, who, however mistakenly, did after all give their lives.

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