A small town remembers Tradition: In little Union Bridge, Memorial Day remains a day to parade, to salute, perhaps to cry.

May 25, 1998|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

Finding a crowd in the dusty railroad town of Union Bridge is a difficult task. There is no town square. Downtown is a sub shop, a gun shop and a hardware store where customers can buy a single bolt. That's about it.

But come Memorial Day, every Memorial Day, Grace Strine, Scott Roop and James B. "Sonny" Williams welcome hundreds of people -- from Union Bridge and beyond -- to the little Carroll County town to do what they feel they've been called to do: not just remember the country's dead servicemen and women of all wars, but to help others remember as well.

"I guess," says Strine, 49, the daughter of a career soldier, "some people could find this a little corny. But we don't."

Cities, towns and villages across Maryland have scheduled programs to honor the country's veterans, and many of the observances will attract more people than Union Bridge's.

But this is a town of fewer than 900 people. All told, there will be close to 900 people marching in its parade or watching it, and a good many people at the memorial service outside the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall.

"Other places, Memorial Day used to be a real big thing. People would talk about their uncle who they lost in the war, and it meant a lot to everybody -- everybody," says Norm Geisel, 67, the state adjutant for Maryland's VFW. "Well, those people in Union Bridge have never given up. It's a big day for them, and they talk it up to everybody who they bump into. That's why they get the crowds."

Months of preparation go into the day, what with calling around to find out who plans to be in the parade and scheduling a speaker for the memorial service and figuring out which dignitaries should be seated where.

The memorial activities begin a few days before the holiday. Veterans such as Williams, 68, who saw action in Korea, report to their VFW hall and get a list of names and cemeteries.

Most of the volunteers are about Williams' age, and most do not move as quickly or as nimbly as they once did. But they fan out to the cemeteries and carefully zigzag around the tombstones, looking for the veterans on their lists. When they find one, they sink a small American flag into the ground.

"I remember when we came home," says Williams, now gray-haired and wearing bifocals, but recalling how his ship arrived at port in 1952 as if it were yesterday. "We came into San Francisco. Big tugboats were pushing that ship in, and that big band was playing, and I thought to myself, 'This is something you're never going to forget' -- and I never have.

"If you've ever been that full of pride for your country, to the point that tears are coming to your eyes, Memorial Day is something you honor."

Official Memorial Day observances in Union Bridge begin about 6 p.m. with a traditional parade. Firefighters and police officers, children and dogs, pageant queens and politicians gather on the driveway of the town's largest employer, the Lehigh Portland Cement Co.

When everybody is in order, a signal is given, and the fire engines and police cars blink along the route leading from the staging ground to the VFW hall. The Loyalty Day Queen and the Voice of Democracy contest winner wave to the crowd. Boy Scouts and military veterans march, while flowers made of tissue paper fly off floats.

Also in the mix are a fair number of "professional" marchers, who come from around Maryland and Pennsylvania to take part in the parade. Some bring their old cars; the Keystone Kops perform; the Shriners from Hagerstown show up; and a group from Green Council, Pa., is usually on hand. One visitor scoots up the parade route each year in a miniature tank.

"The real reason for it all is to get to the memorial service," says Roop, 49, who served in the Army during the Vietnam War and who is commander of Union Bridge's VFW Post 8806.

The parade comes to a halt in front of polished gray stones, monuments that mark the country's wars and honor those who '' fought in them. The stones for the world wars have the names of the town's veterans inscribed, from Roy Alexander to George Zinkham in the first war, Donald Bange to Raymond Ziegler in the second.

Other stones honor those who served in Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama and the Persian Gulf region.

Politicians are not permitted to give speeches. ("This isn't a political thing," Roop says.) Someone, though, gives a few words of thanks. There is a 21-gun salute. "Taps" is played. Roop and Williams always salute. Strine always cries.

"You just can't help it," she explains. The most touching Memorial Day she can remember was when her daughter, Lisa Brockman, returned from Operation Desert Storm, where she served with the Marines. Roop's son, also in the Marines, was there, too.

"Just to have them there, that they made it home, you couldn't help but cry," she says and then pauses, to keep from crying again.

"It meant a lot. I met a lot of families whose kids didn't come back from that. That's why you cry, too."

Pub Date: 5/25/98

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