By Stanley Campbell
Memorials to the war dead are too prolific. Not that our guys (and gals) don’t deserve them. Oh no, just the opposite. There are too many memorials because too many youngsters (and a few old farts) died in these latest “police actions.” And whether we need so many wars, we still must honor those who died. But that does not make the wars any more justifiable, or even necessary.
Rockford Peace & Justice Action Committee hosts their annual Memorial Day Service at 7 p.m., Monday, May 30, at JustGoods Meeting Room, 201 Seventh St., free and open to the public. Besides remembering all those killed by war (and yes, we remember civilians as well as soldiers—they seem to be the main casualties nowadays), our service will also remember those who fought against war.
This year, we remember Betty Johnson, a former League of Women Voters member, an active Presbyterian and local peace activist. It was Betty who encouraged us to commemorate the Hiroshima bombings and pray for no more nuclear weapons. She returned from Japan with a peace lantern, from Nicaragua with fair-trade coffee, and from the League of Women Voters to take on the Byron Nuclear Power Plant.
Betty’s picture will be hung in our little memorial gallery. Her picture will join others who locally gave their all for peace: nutritionist Edie Applegate was instrumental in the CROP Hunger Walk that raised funds for local and overseas hunger relief. Katie VanRaden was a poet and a peace activist in her own special way. David Liddell counseled youth, the Rev. Maynard Beal was my mentor.
This year’s Memorial Day service will be short and sweet. Music, some poems, a remembrance or two and then some snacks. Nothing special. My friend Doug Kamholz (the creator of Storefront Cinema, now living in Springfield, Ill.) sent me a wonderful missive about his 1970 Memorial Day memories. I’d like to share it with you:
“This Memorial Day marks the 40th anniversary of that holiday parade in Rockton where my first wife, Louise, myself and my old, recently deceased friend Jerry stepped uninvited into the rear of the procession. We were carrying our homemade coffin emblazoned with ‘40,000 Dead Kids,’ and we were wearing our Army khakis (Doug is a veteran, as am I—Stan’s note). Louise trailed behind, shrouded in black and cradling a bouquet of pilfered irises.
“Parents along the route turned their children’s heads so as not to see. We placed the coffin at the base of the flag stanchion in the graveyard, where the reading of the dead was taking place. It was smashed to splinters by National Guardsmen using their rifle butts. We were lucky to escape unscathed. And to her eternal credit, my high school English teacher came and stood by us; bless her.
“You invited me to recount this tale. I much appreciate that. I wonder sometimes how I would feel if that was the only protest I’d done. I have friends who did one thing ‘back then’ and still need to call upon that moment of glory or resistance, or whatever you call it, when they wish to feel they participated in ‘The Sixties’ or ‘The Revolution’ or, to use Marcuse’s phrase, ‘The Great Refusal.’
“I am glad so much of my life continues to jump into parades with upsetting messages and bouquets of flowers. I will add here only that both my friend Jerry and I were from Rockton, Ill. I had been out of the Army all of two weeks. Jerry, also a draftee, had been out longer. In our younger years, as both grade school and high school band members, we had marched annually in that same parade.
“One of the good things that came out of our anti-war protest was that newspaper coverage of it also gave a few current Hononegah High band members a chance to say publicly that they had not wanted to march because of their feelings about the war.”
We veterans have more power than we let on. We squeezed free education, housing loans and burial benefits out of a tightwad nation. And we Viet vets prodded the national conscience about Agent Orange and PTSD for decades. But we should be asking for the one thing we really want: no more war. Make this the last Memorial Day during wartime.
Stanley Campbell is executive director of Rockford Urban Ministries and spokesman for Rockford Peace & Justice.
From the May 25-31, 2011 issue