21 Guns: Memorial Day is NOT About BBQ and a Day Off

STEAMBOAT ROCK, IA. So many people are all excited about the three day weekend, eating some good barbecue, and having a day off.  Well, that’s not what it’s about.  I never even associated these things with Memorial Day until I was older.

You see, I grew up in a tiny town of 335 people in central Iowa.  I didn’t much like or appreciate it at the time; but in hindsight, I am a much better person for it.  The neatest thing about Steamboat Rock, Iowa, is not only the sense of community, but the respect for our veterans.  It doesn’t matter what side of the line you’re on, left or right, there’s no denying the sacrifices made by those who have bravely served.

Every year on Memorial Day, there is a beautiful service at the cemetery.  I don’t ever remember a time when this did not take place, and it still occurs each year even today.   My nephew, Ty, used to participate, and this year was his little brother’s first year to do so.  (Unfortunately, rain and lightning resulted in the need to move the service indoors to the schoolhouse.  But, there was still a service, nonetheless.)


My nephew proudly wearing his poppy- when asked why he was wearing the poppy, he would say, “So the soldiers don’t get killed.” (The donkey is near the cemetery- yes it’s inside “city” limits…lol)

There is a committee that puts white crosses at the graves of all the veterans, and local people donate flowers.  My grandma always brought ferns, irises, poppies, and lilacs- she never let us pick them because they were for Memorial Day.  The committee then bundles up the flowers into bouquets to be placed at each grave by the town’s children.

This was such a big event for the tiny town- nearly every resident participated in some way.  People gathered at the cemetery in the morning, and the children would line up in (loose) formation with a bouquet in each hand.  The kids, along with the adults and teenagers participating would wait at the entrance to the cemetery.

The local chapter of the American Legion sends an Honor Guard to participate in the service.  The Honor Guard, complete with colors and rifles, starts off at the schoolhouse, and marches the three or four blocks down the road to the cemetery, with the local commander calling cadence.  When I was a kid, the school marching band also participated, and followed the Honor Guard.  (I wish the band still did this because it was truly amazing!)

Once the Honor Guard reached the cemetery, everyone placed their hands over their hearts for the colors, and the legion members entered the cemetery, followed by the children (older kids and teens volunteered as helpers).  The adults and teen helpers would direct the children to the white crosses, and flowers would be laid at each veteran’s grave.  The parade continued to wind through the entire cemetery, with the kids continuously being resupplied with flowers, until a bouquet had been laid for every single veteran.

After all the flowers were placed, the marching would come to an end in an open space with a gazebo, near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  The Honor Guard would then line up in formation, ready their rifles, and proceed with the 21 gun salute. Taps and Echo followed, and then a service began, led by the preachers from the two local churches, and anyone else that may be speaking.  After the service, the kids would go gather up the shell casings, which they got to keep as souvenirs (we often used them as whistles).

After the service, since we lived close by, there was usually a gathering at our house.  Many of the veterans were friends with my parents, so they would come over with their families to visit and have coffee.  THIS was Memorial Day.  It was always about the veterans, their sacrifices, and sense of community.

About seven months after my dad died, Jerry and I visited Iowa for Memorial Day weekend.  Having served honorably in the United States Air Force, I became the first female veteran and legion member to take part in the town’s service, as a member of the Honor Guard.  The same veterans from my childhood were still there, albeit with a bit grayer hair.  It was such a huge honor to be able to march with the same heroes that I grew up walking behind at the cemetery.


My mom and my nephew watching as we entered the cemetery.

I’ll tell you what, having been in the medical field, I had never marched with a rifle before.  Let me just say, marching a total of what couldn’t have been more than a mile while carrying an M1 Garand was tiring!  But, thinking about how far our soldiers had to carry those rifles really put things into perspective.


Lined up in formation, preparing for the 21 gun salute near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I’m front row, second from the right (next to my dad’s friend Larry).

As the command was given to prepare to fire, I swear I had chills run up my spine; and my eyes watered as Taps and Echo were played.  I was truly moved by the sacrifices made by those we were saluting, and by the huge honor and privilege in being part of the Honor Guard and 21 gun salute.


About-face, away from the crowd, ready to fire.

This year, I am now remembering some of those I marched with who have passed.  No, Memorial Day isn’t about barbecue and a day off.  It’s all about the sacrifice.

Proud to be an American.

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