EDITORIAL: Remembering Uncle Max

WHEN I WAS A KID someone in my family said something about Armistice Day becoming Veterans Day. It stuck in my child memory as a big deal. Maybe it was because of Great Uncle Max’s medal.

I kept it in my room. The ribbon and metal cross attached to it were mounted behind glass in a black frame. Below it was a gold-painted tag with his name and the name of the medal, Croix de Guerre with palm. He was shot down in France behind German lines July 8, 1918 by German pilots. Before the World War I he was a playwright. He’d said he expected to die on the stage. He volunteered to become a flier in the 147th Aero Squadron.

You can find Veterans Day observance around the county this weekend. There’s a parade in Hudson and a ceremony at the VFW Post on Route 66 in Ghent, which now alternates year-to-year between there and Chatham. It’s a cooperative arrangement between the VFW and the Chatham American Legion Post. Other events are in this week’s Events calendar.

One of the traditions at this and who knows how many other Memorial Day and Veterans Day observances is a reading of the poem “In Flanders Fields” by Canadian doctor John McCrae. The poet–a physician in the trenches of what was once called the Great War–calls out in the voice of dead soldiers, asking for the living to take up the cause.

Usually a high school student recites the poem. It’s moving to hear it in the voice someone so young but I wonder how much of it kids understand and how much we adults want them to know. It’s the same with the gap between the French medal and what a child can appreciate about the price paid for it.

There were English poets from World War I whose work was better known at the time than McCrea’s. One of the most read was Wilfred Owen. He was killed in combat just before the armistice, which ended that war on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Or Siegfried Sassoon. Even today, with all that kids can see in films and online, Sassoon’s descriptions of trench warfare are too graphic for a child to read aloud at a solemn public occasion.

So we’re left with Dr. McCrae’s delicate “crosses row on row” to represent war dead and the struggles that led to that toll. Is there some way to update the ceremony to make it more relevant? Should the organizers focus even more on current events and the needs of today’s veterans?

Uncle Max died 30 years before I was born. He was flying a French plane known for its wings that fell off in mid-air. The French government rejected the plane but Uncle Max flew his craft well enough until he was outnumbered protecting the retreat of two of his comrades. He’s buried not in Flanders but somewhere near the Chateau-Thierry battlefield in France. He is under one of those grave markers. I don’t have his French medal any longer. Years ago I gave it to my nephew.

Now, every Veterans Day renews my acquaintance with Uncle Max. The day reminds me that as much as I believe war is the worst way to resolve differences, I know that he volunteered to fight because he believed what he was doing was right and in the best interests of his country. He couldn’t know that the armistice would last no more than two decades and that a worse struggle would follow. It wasn’t his duty to judge once he wore the uniform.

Twenty years ago the military finally awarded Uncle Max a Silver Star medal. Maybe the paperwork got lost. Eighty years or so late, though it’s not like he cares. I care. The medal is welcome; it’s another reason to remember that I’m grateful to him and to the other veterans who did what they thought was right and in the best interests of their country. Thank you.

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