Memorial Day weekend meant two distinct and important activities for a child growing up in an Indiana town in the 1960s.
Race Day was about fun and family, and Decoration Day was about country and family.
Sunday was Race Day, an acceptable reason for missing church. Indiana’s 92 counties then shared the same time, in that netherworld between Central and Eastern zones. Family huddled around an AM radio to hear taps, the Purdue Marching Band and “Back Home Again in Indiana.”
The race started promptly at 11 a.m. with the call, “Gentlemen, start your engines.” There was no Danica-mania in those days, Janet Guthrie had yet to break that barrier as the first female Indy car driver.
Sid Collins called the race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network, which broadcast all over the world. Nothing speaks Race Day to a Hoosier like the static blare of AM radio, punctuated by the whizzing of race cars in the background.
I had a distant cousin, Roy Grugel, who worked at the track in the 1920s. Can you imagine being able to brag that you “worked in the pits?”
Race Day lunch meant grilling Eckrich hot dogs until they were nearly black and crunchy. We drank cherry Kool-Aid, made with a cup of real sugar, and enjoyed Seyferts BBQ potato chips.
The children and some adults played Jarts, a popular game that eventually was pulled off the market. A Jart was a long, metal lawn dart that teams threw into a plastic circle. The Jart was terribly unsafe, and it often found its misbegotten way through someone’s foot. Yet, we kept on playing. Tradition.
While the federal holiday after Race Day was called Memorial Day, many old-timers called it Decoration Day. My aunt Mary Irene made sure a flag decorated my uncle Chet’s grave, to commemorate his service in World War II. She also honored her parents, deceased siblings and other relatives with colorful flowers. My parents, nearly 80, continue this tradition today, visiting several cemeteries.
In May 1971 I marched with the South Whitley High School band in the Memorial Day parade. Before the consolidation movement, many Indiana schools were small township schools. I was an eighth-grader, but the band needed warm bodies, so the junior high kids stepped up.
We wore the same blue and white wool striped band uniforms that my mother wore marching in the same parade in 1946. Wool is hot in May, and wool that has endured several generations of students has an essence all its own.
The entire town turned out to watch us. Old soldiers from the “War to End All Wars,” World War II and Korea marched ahead of us. On the sidewalks, Legion wives and widows sold red plastic buddy poppies for a dollar. The red poppy is a symbol of the fallen soldier, and it comes from the poem “In Flanders Field” in which poet John McCrae penned, “In Flanders fields the poppies blow between the crosses, row on row.”
We marched down State Street, playing “My Buddy,” a song that tells the story of a World War I soldier who lost his friend. We marched on to the local cemetery where veterans and officials gave solemn speeches. The officials honored those in service that day, in that wetland known as Vietnam.
Our ragtag band played “My Buddy” repeatedly, sounding much like the tinny band in “The Andy Griffith Show,” a 1960s television favorite, celebrating small-town life. I think “My Buddy” was the only song we knew.
Despite the heat, the smell of old wool and a crowd of rowdy, over-sugared children, everyone was glad to be there.
This day of remembrance — for those who served our country, for those who passed before us — made us pause.
I played my flute while some long-forgotten tenor sang the Gus Kahn song: “Miss your voice, the touch of your hand, just long to know that you understand, My buddy, my buddy, your buddy misses you.”
Published May 30, 2010 in the Evansville Courier and Press.