I grew up in the little town of Hampton, Connecticut, which then had a population of about 1,400 and today is home to some 2,000 souls. Much of the town's land belongs to either the Goodwin State Forest or to a preservation tract adjoining Trail Wood, the home of naturalist Edwin Way Teale. We have a general store on the Main street, across from the Congregational church. The Catholic church, Our Lady of Lourdes, is on a side road because, in the late 19th century, this Yankee town did not want a Catholic church on the Main Street! There is still no traffic signal in our town.
In Hampton, Memorial Day was always a big day, the day we had a parade! Our parades seemed like really big affairs in which the whole town took part and it seemed to go on for a long time. As I got older, I realized it was not such a large affair but it was big by the standards of our town, and even bigger if measured by the degree of participation: There were usually as many people in the parade as along the Main Street watching it.
The parade was always led by our town's veterans, who somehow still managed to fit into their old uniforms. I remember they belonged to the Leslie Jewett VFW post. (Leslie Jewett was the only man from our town to die in World War II.) As a boy, we still had some veterans of World War II and then, sadly, more and more of the veterans were younger and newly returned from the Vietnam War. The Girl Scouts had a float and the 4-H had a float and the Historical Society had a float. These floats consisted of flat beds, the kind you use to collect bales of hay, pulled by tractors, but they were very spruced up. Then at the end, both of our town’s fire trucks went by with their lights on and their siren blaring.
The parade finished at the monument to our veterans from the two world wars in the center of the old village, in front of the town's library and across from the General Store. Today, the parade starts at that monument and ends in front of the town hall, where there are new monuments to the veterans of later wars. The minister of the Congregational Church says a prayer and the town's First Selectman serves as master of ceremonies. Someone is selected each year to give a short speech. Guns are fired into the air. The flag is lowered to half staff. The band plays a patriotic song. Then everyone heads for the adjacent community center where there is grilled chicken, potato salad and ice cream.
I remember those Memorial Days fondly. Once, my uncle gave the talk. Many times Jim Robertson, a history professor at the University of Connecticut and the husband of my Latin teacher, Janet, gave the talk. Whoever spoke, we always knew the person. We knew everyone in the parade. The proceedings schooled us in patriotism, not primarily with the prominence afforded the veterans, nor with the music, or even the red, white and blue bunting on the floats. It was the participation that really mattered. In our town, everybody was included, or so it seemed. Unlike the patriotic displays at the Super Bowl or other sporting events, all of which seem alike and are very staged, our town’s Memorial Day celebration touched deeper chords because we knew the families of those veterans, we knew the speaker connecting the sacrifice of previous generations to the day’s festivities, we knew each other.
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These days, people do not feel as connected to one another as I remember them being when I was growing up. I live now in a suburb of Washington, D.C., and I do not know most of my neighbors, although they all know my dogs from when I walk them. I know my neighbors to wave and to say hello, but mostly I do not know what they do for a living or where they are from or to whom they are related. Recently, some young couples have moved in and I have made a determined effort to get to know them better, to make them feel welcome. I gave two of the new couples some plants from my garden two weeks ago. I hope this patch of streets in the suburbs will become a real neighborhood.
Many people like to think that our democracy is beset by problems created in Washington, and Lord knows the irresponsibility of politicians of both parties is legion. Some people buy into exotic beliefs of American exceptionalism, and think our problems are the result of our unwillingness to live out our divine destiny. Others run in the other direction, warming to crackpot theories spouted by Chomsky or West, denigrating everything about America.
My question this Memorial Day is different. I wonder if our democracy can ever be as vibrant as it was when America, rural and urban, was a place of neighborhoods? Can democracy thrive unless people participate in the annual markings of civic life because they care about their neighbors and understand that some of them, like Leslie Jewett, had gone abroad to fight for the freedoms we took for granted? Can a democracy flourish when we do not know our neighbors' names or what they do for a living? I do not know. But, I know that on Monday, almost all the townspeople of Hampton, Connecticut will either watch our Memorial Day parade or be in the parade. And I believe the turnout for the parade has something to do with the fact that our town routinely has 80 percent or more of voters turn out for elections, always one of the top percentages in the state. I wonder if people can truly belong to a nation unless they first belong to a neighborhood, and I wonder, too, if the lack of localism in our political life is not a large part of what ails us.
[Michael Sean Winters is a Visiting Fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]