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Memorial Day: Of pilgrims and a pilot
"I would like to tell you how genuinely proud I am to have men such as your son in my command, and how gratified I am to know that young Americans with such courage and resourcefulness are fighting our country's battle against the aggressor nations."
--Lt. Gen. George C. Kenney, Allied air chief in the southwest Pacific, in a 1943 letter to my grandmother, Clara Grady, noting her son's receipt of the Distinguished Flying Cross
By Patrick O'Grady
Dog Mountain, CO
COME MEMORIAL DAY WEEKEND, it's almost as if the rising temperature sets our cities on fire, forcing their inhabitants to scurry forth in all directions like rats from a burning landfill.
Originally intended to honor soldiers killed in the American Civil War, a salute later extended to all U.S. war dead, Memorial Day doesn't commemorate much of anything any more, beyond the national obsession with getting the hell out of wherever we happen to have our scabby noses held to the grindstone.
A few Americans with recollections sharpened by the angry zip of bullets aimed at them will honor fallen comrades by gathering at cemeteries or memorials and marching in parades.
But 28.4 million of us will simply pile into the family tank and slap at least a hundred miles on the odometer, according to the American Automobile Association. A paltry 6 million will do their Memorial Day meandering via plane, bus or train, according to the AAA. No word on how many will travel via bicycle, weighed down by flak jackets, cell phones and concealed weapons to increase the odds of a safe return.
Me, I'm sticking close to home. I may still get shot or run over, of course. But it's a small town, so chances are I'll know by whom, and what for.
Plucking The Holiday Turkeys. Here in Westcliffe, the Memorial Day weekend heralds opening day in one of the local merchants' favorite hunting seasons: not deer, or elk, but tourist. Shopowners hawking everything from heavy food to light beer, who must subsist upon the scrawny local economy during the snowless, wind-scoured winter, pray each May for the descent of a plague of pilgrims, each with a slight list to one side caused by the weight of his wallet.
After three days of plucking these turkeys, the local roads will be enhanced by used Pampers, empty Old Milkweed cans and ptomaine-tavern bags alive with roaches that most likely were in there when the grub was purchased. (They call it fast food not because it's quick, but because it drives a sane person to go hungry rather than ever eat it again.)
In return, the community will be enriched by several dozens of dollars, which will be spent to Rhino-Line the Chamber of Commerce's mailbox so that the dung-bombs flung by those who don't appreciate this seasonal invasion may be more easily sluiced out by some service-economy serf armed with a simple garden hose, a few gallons of Clorox and a strategically placed clothespin.
Off The Beaten Path. Since we don't live in town, but rather 10 miles east of it in the Wet Mountains, holiday hullaballoo has only a minimal effect on us. All manner of pocket-picking is going on in town, from a 5k footrace that will cost $4 a kilometer, to a "block party" intended to bark a few marks into the shopping extravaganza that is Second Street, where they may rent a lawyer or an ATV, maybe read some Christian Science.
But out here in the boonies, a few fifth-wheels and popups sprout abruptly on seldom-occupied properties like aluminum mushrooms after an acid rain, followed shortly thereafter by the pop pop pop of gratuitous small-arms fire, the city dog's means of marking territory when no diapers, beer cans or burger bags are close to hand.
Mostly, the holiday weekend means I must ride more judiciously along the single-track on nearby Bear Basin Ranch. Instead of beeves, the Bear Basin cowboys herd dudes, so the trails are briefly overpopulated with plodding quadrupeds bearing porky urbanites whose contours are better suited to an SUV than a saddle. I make it a habit to give wagon room to half-ton hayburners with half-ounce brains when riding a bicycle, as fat astronauts make a hell of a stink when they burn up upon re-entry.
A Little KP, Then Hit The Deck. Once I'm done riding and Shannon's through running, we'll do a little desultory spring cleaning. She'll wash a few windows, I'll tidy up my office, and afterward we'll take our ease on the deck, sipping a few drams, listening to birdsong and enjoying a sunset over the Sangre de Cristos that the metropolitan migrants only get to see once or twice a year.
And I'll think of my father, Col. Harold Joseph O'Grady, who died nearly 20 years ago. He flew nearly 300 combat missions during World War II with the New Guinea-based 65th Squadron, 433rd Troop Carrier Group, but couldn't survive civilian life.
Dad paid for this mountain home of ours with 30 years of uniformed service in exotic foreign locales like New Guinea, Panama and Washington, D.C. But he never got to see it. His last home, a suburban trilevel in northeastern Colorado Springs, was the first one he and Mom ever owned.
Even considering the tourists, I think he'd have liked it here. He was a small-town boy before the Air Force showed him a larger, less gentle world, and there are plenty of days when a contrail is the only cloud in the sky.
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