Memorial Day, Friday, May 30, 1957
I was almost nine years old then and way too young to have any memories of the recent wars. I hadn’t even been born when V-E and V-J Day came along. Luckily, my immediate family had been spared any loss of brothers, sisters, fathers, aunts or uncles in World War II or Korea. So, to my addled, youthful mind, it was just a day off from school and a chance to have a big whoop-dee-doo in Uptown Mt. Lebanon.
The big deal, at least for us kids, was the Memorial Day Parade along Washington Road.
My brother, Dave, and I had spent the previous weeks wheedling nickels and dimes from our parents to buy “decorations” for our bicycles. This decoration business first meant going down to G.C. Murphy’s at the Lebanon Shops. Our mission was to buy as many rolls of red, white and blue crepe paper as we could afford. Apparently the entire point of this bicycle decorating exercise was excessive use of crepe paper.
The actual work of decorating the bikes began the night before Memorial Day. We started by artfully weaving alternating colors of crepe paper through the spokes of our bikes. Step two was to wrap the crepe paper around the handlebars and cross-bar of the bike. The final crowning touch was to attach streamers of crepe paper to the end of the handle bars, the back of the seat and the rear fender. Additionally, there was the option to use clothes pins to attach baseball cards to the bicycle forks to create a bad imitation of a motorcycle’s sound.
On Memorial Day my father would load our bikes into the trunk of the family Ford and drive us up to Washington Road. After a final check to make sure our decorations were in place and sufficiently garish, we would pedal to the marshalling area in Mt. Lebanon Cemetery. It should be pointed out that the parade was not just for the kids and their bikes. The Mt. Lebanon Senior High School Marching Band was there in all their finery. There was a military drill team from somewhere. And there were usually a couple of old-timey cars or fancy new convertibles to carry our local dignitaries. A well-polished red fire engine was usually drafted for parade service, too. It was a fine ensemble and a point of great pride for us kids to be allowed to participate in this august event.
We would pedal proudly down Washington Road. With some note of pride, I can report that I never disgraced myself by crashing into the guy next to me and falling face first on the pavement in front of a thousand or so people. As we came to the end of the parade route at Alfred Street, Dave and I made great haste to get turned around and headed back to the Cemetery. This is where the Big Event took place.
The Big Event was the firing of a 21-gun salute for the soldiers who had died in the war. Dave and I and a bunch of other scavenger kids would scramble to find a place on the ground as near as we could get to the military rifle team. After a few solemn words and a prayer by some notable person, the rifle team would fire off three volleys of seven shots. After each volley they would eject the spent shell and chamber another round. The spent shell would fly off into the grass where Dave and I would risk life and limb to grab one before another kid got it. The trick was to put your hand over the shell without actually picking it up…they were devilishly hot and most newcomer kids wound up screaming and instinctively tossing their scalding treasure away after grabbing it. I think I still have scars from these melees.
And I’d like to think that somewhere in an old box in my basement, I still have a couple of spent brass shells from Mt. Lebanon’s great Memorial Day parades.
Jeff Coghill is a Mt. Lebanon native and a proud graduate of Julia Ward Howe Elementary School (Class of 1960) and Andrew W. Mellon Junior High School (Class of 1963.) Things fell off rapidly after that, but in spite of what it might suggest on his permanent record, he did graduate from Mt. Lebanon High School in 1966. Barely. He has worked as a paperboy, busboy, waiter, school bus driver, janitor, office flunky, construction flunky, retail sales, federal investigator, and ended his career working in counter-terrorism programs in Europe, Africa and the Middle East for the U.S. Government. He is now retired and lives in Atlanta. He enjoys gardening and writes a gardening column for the local newspaper. He also does woodworking, volunteer work and reads without moving his lips. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org