Commentary Magazine

An Exurban Memorial Day

At ten o’clock this morning, the town of North Salem, New York, held its annual Memorial Day Parade. The Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion led the way, followed by boy scouts and girl scouts, a fabulous old Packard convertible, the North Salem high school band, the 4-H club, the Ambulance Corps, the Lions Club, and a few other groups.  The fire trucks of the Croton Falls Volunteer Fire Department–each polished to within an inch of its life–took up the rear.

After the parade passed, the few hundred people, children, and dogs watching from the sidelines followed it up the hill to the old high school, where there is a monument to those who fought in the wars of the twentieth century. The Pledge of Allegiance was recited, those in uniform saluting, those not with their hands over their hearts. Several of the younger Boys Scouts–presumably southpaws–saluted left-handed, I noticed, and no one seemed to mind. The band played the Star-Spangled Banner surprisingly well. The commander of the local American Legion spoke briefly, as did the town supervisor and a few others. The names of locals who had fallen in the nation’s wars were read out.

And then it was over. The people walked back down the hill to the town ball field for hot dogs, potato salad, soda, and conversation and then slowly dispersed to go about their business on a perfect early summer day.

I was moved, as I always am, by this unaffected, unostentatious, unself-conscious and quintessentially American holiday celebration. My family has lived in North Salem for ninety years now. The town was deep in the countryside when my grandparents bought a farm here in 1919 to use as a summer place, and it is now on the outer fringes of New York’s suburbs. Many commute daily to the city. But only  about 5000 people live here and it is still very much a small town, like ten of thousands of other across this vast land, despite being only forty-odd miles from Grand Central. And the chords of memory bind it still. The names of my father and uncle, both long gone, are on the monument among those who fought in World War II. Some names of those who lost their lives in the Civil War are familiar today, because their families still live here.

As I both watched and participated in this Memorial Day celebration I found myself thinking about the election in November. Does Barack Obama and the urban chattering classes who have lionized him know this America at all, this small-town, God-fearing, country-loving, optimistic, friendly America? With his all-that-is-wrong-with-the-country-to-be-made-right-by-me stump speech and a wife who thinks this is a mean country with little for its citizens to be proud of, I doubt it.

But if he doesn’t know this America, doesn’t seek to connect with it, he will not win in November no matter how eloquent he is or how much water is carried for him in the media over the next few months.  For it is in the North Salems of America, not the Hyde Parks and Upper West Sides, where the nation’s political center of gravity is to be found.

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