Presiding over the event were two formidable women, sisters, Millie and Winnie, nee Gustafson (full blooded Swedes), who had married Harrison Stevens and Carleton Winslow, consummate New Englanders and first cousins. These women, like their mother Ida Carleson Gustafson (a former premier "presider" at these events with her husband Art), were born with "food prep for mass gatherings" as part of their DNA. They and their female children (same DNA) covered the tables with endless supplies of deviled eggs, fruit salads, potato salads, cold cuts, sliced onions, olives, mustards and mayonnaise, catsup and chili sauce, pickles, relishes, grilled burgers and dogs with all the fixin's, pies and cakes and cookies, iced tea, soda, beer and as much bourbon and scotch as the occasion demanded.
There were Frisbees to be spun, rocks to be thrown at imaginary targets on nearby tree trunks or hurled with shoulder-dislocating strength to see who could hit the water just off the distant beach, occasional footballs and baseballs to be tossed around, and a homespun, competitive family contest that involved a racket-hit tennis ball soaring skyward, almost out of sight, and then its return to earth in the spotty fickle breezes testing even the most keen-eyed "catcher" below--especially toward dusk when tennis balls were easily confused with darting bats. These were emotionally warm and memorable halcyon days indeed.
So now, living in Colorado, away from all that family, on Memorial Days I feel mostly empty and alone, a little sad as I reminisce about those "good old days." I try to put them in their place among other memorabilia on my mental shelves. As balm, I slip easily back to a trip that I took on my fiftieth birthday with my brother in law, Tom, who was turning forty the same week. I had been reading a lot of history about World War I, so I planned a European trip for us to view some battlefields of the Great War (an oxymoron if I ever heard one).
From Paris we drove East to Verdun, stopping at military cemeteries along the way. We saw the final resting places of hundreds of young men, most of whom were less than twenty when their lives were cut off, boys who were adolescents really, the age of the students I taught in prep schools. The kids in these graves (because we were touring the Western Front) came mostly from America, England and her colonies, France, Germany, Russia, and Italy. We saw only a minute part of evidence (what could be found at least) of the carnage that produced the detritus of war.
The total figures for war deaths in that conflict are staggering, mind-boggling.
"The 'Great War', which began on 28 July 1914 with Austria-Hungary's declaration of war with Serbia, and which ended with the German armistice of 11 November 1918, produced a vast number of casualties and deaths - and similarly vast numbers of missing soldiers.
The precise numbers remain shrouded in the passing of time compounded by the incompleteness of available records. In the heat of action accurate records were not always kept, and where they were, these were not uncommonly lost in subsequent actions, such were the conditions of trench warfare.
Thus the figures reproduced below cannot be regarded as definitive but are a fair reflection of the scale of losses country by country.
Note too that these statistics reflect military casualties only; no reliable figures are available for civilian casualties throughout the world. Attributing civilian casualties to the effects of war is a subjective process at best; the scale of the First World War certainly resulted in an absence of even the most approximate figures for affected nations.
Caveats aside - on to the figures:
"Verdun resulted in 698,000 battlefield deaths (362,000 French and 336,000 German combatants), an average of 70,000 deaths for each of the ten months of the battle. It was the longest and one of the most devastating battles in the First World War and the history of warfare."
Returning West along the trench lines from Verdun to the English Channel, Tom and I stopped to view the Canadian memorial at Vimy Ridge, the resting place of more than 10,000 Canadian boys and men who were killed in three days fighting over a relatively miniscule parcel of barely-elevated land. Their deaths had been preceded months before by the demise of several hundred thousand French and British boys and men. None of these people would ever whistle a tune, or see their homes again. We were on sacred ground, once killing fields.
When we began our European adventure, Tom and I were both feeling a little glum and depressed about our birthdays which were blatant indicators of our advancing ages, our "over-the-hill-ness" as it were. We were feeling on the edge of being put out to pasture. After the trip, and having confronted the brute reality of the millions of deaths--and in only one war-- deaths of men and boys much younger than ourselves, we both were humbled and eternally grateful that we were still alive, that we had been given the years that we had already lived (old farts though we might be becoming), and that we still had futures to contemplate and savor. So many of those graves contained the remains of kids who did not even make it to legal voting age. I can't exchange joy of any sort about being alive for the deep sorrow I feel for those countless kids whose memory is marked only by white or gray gravestones.
So, I'm not surprised that now, in 2012, pathos and sadness return to me; and involuntarily my thoughts expand to include visions of other times and places, of the countless millions of men and women all over the world whose lives were cut short by other wars, and the attendant disasters they brought on; men and women who will never again able to read a book, or taste sweet milk or smell a broiling steak, bite into a crisp apple, or to go on a picnic with their families; and who will never have a chance to feel the ocean breezes, or see the yachts with their colorful spinnakers billowing, as they surge downwind toward finish line, hoping to hear only the report of the race committee's innocuous cannon signifying the end of the first competition of the season.