We're postcard Americans, living in the middle of a peaceable New England cliché.
Yet only 20 miles to our east, two bloody skirmishes took place. In 1675 and again in 1704, Mohawk warriors massacred scores of men, women, and children in the hamlet of Deerfield. To be fair to the Mohawks, these battles took place after Anglo-Saxon settlers inadvertently had eliminated a friendly tribe, the Pocumtucks. The settlers spread diseases for which the Pocumtucks, the original people living on the banks of the Deerfield River, had no resistance. The resulting power vacuum put Mohawks and settlers into direct confrontation. During the second massacre, 111 English women and children were kidnapped and force-marched to Quebec.
That was the last time armed combat occurred nearby.
Today, visitors to Deerfield can see doors scarred by tomahawks and arrows 300 years ago. However, the town's fully restored colonial-era beauty is so compelling now that it's hard to imagine the grim hand-to-hand struggle that took place there. Ancient scars function as local color, titillating tourists moving from one quaint exhibit to another.
Today, Deerfield and the hill towns to the west (like Ashfield) are steady, calm places, small-town anomalies in our rootless land.
Yet we're neither so small nor rustic that we've avoided the modern physical costs of defending our nation.
Every Memorial Day, like your town or city, our town holds an early-summer ritual.
I love the contrast between these gentle, family-oriented rites and the harsh cruelties of war itself.
Ninety minutes of disarmingly serene customs pass quickly--depending upon the quality of The Big Speech, which varies a lot, to say the least. As we remember our warriors, most of them fallen so long ago that no one present feels a sense of personal loss, our mood is happily disconnected from the din of the battles in which these old soldiers fell, save for the startling concussions from our rifle salutes.
The mood isn't complacent, exactly, but it is contented. This is as it should be.
Hundreds of townsfolk will gather at Town Hall on Monday. A small but principled minority, our non-tax-paying, military-averse townsfolk, will stay away. That's a pity, because ensuring conscientious people their right to say "Not me!" is one reason why American soldiers fight. (True, showing homage for dead soldiers would be a complicated way to assert one's pacifism.)
Then we'll march to the Plain Cemetery.
We'll walk a quarter mile, a procession of vets, horses, vintage cars, fire trucks, band members, and lots of kids. This year there will probably be fewer than 40 veterans in the parade. Our ranks dwindle as WWII vets pass away one by one. SFC Walt Terrell, who marched two summers ago, died the winter before last. Russell Fessenden helped rejuvenate Europe by working on the Marshall Plan 55 years ago; Russ died last winter. We'll miss them both, but we're counting on Doug Cranson to march snappily, his submariner's uniform as trim as when he first wore it, back in the `50s.
Horses and children will jump nervously as guns go off. (So will some of the vets, like me; I'll twitch reflexively, thinking "Incoming!") In an otherwise tranquil day, those shots are the only visceral reminders of what war really is: surprise, fear, and shock.
We'll remember the fallen. We'll hear a speech positing that defending democratic ideals sometimes requires armed struggle. The high school band will play, and Taps will reverberate in a mournful trumpet duet.
After a brief march to the Civil War Monument, schoolchildren will recite the Gettysburg Address. Here's my favorite part: " ...a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Today we are engaged in a great war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure...."
Just a few feet away, we can see a dozen graves of local men who died during that frightful war, many from disease.
Then we'll walk back to town for potluck supper at the Congo Church.
Along with freedom and the Bill of Rights, our nation's best claim to fame may be that we fight only occasionally, and we pick our squabbles carefully--my war to the contrary and notwithstanding. Thus we refrain from becoming a cruel, warlike state, despite our stupendous powers. For a century and a half, our town's citizen-soldiers have gone far away to do their fighting. Here in Ashfield, as in towns and cities across the land, our homes have been peaceful so long that we've lost personal touch with how calamitous war is. That's good. It doesn't take long to learn how brutal war is when you experience it firsthand. That kind of insight is best avoided, if you have a choice.
Combat veterans have learned one lesson with searing intensity: Every war, even those that history deems necessary, is a tragedy for civilian victims and warriors alike. We must work as hard as we know how to avoid them.
Because the military serves democracy rather than the other way around in our society, the highest praise we give our war dead may be the quiet, plainspoken way we attend their memories.