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Makes a fella proud

Our country preserves grudges much better than holidays. Two examples come to mind: Memorial Day and Veterans Day.

Veterans Day was originally Armistice Day, commemorating the end of World War I. The truce was declared on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. So Armistice Day was specifically Nov. 11. But after WWI, Armistice Day was changed to Veterans Day in order to honor all veterans, not only those who died in World War I.

For years, it was a huge holiday, with practically every city, town and hamlet participating in it. Today, as a federal holiday, it has become more a three-day weekend than an actual day of remembrance. And while there are official gatherings for Veterans Day, they are a shadow of their former selves.

While Veterans Day was created to honor all veterans, Memorial Day is strictly to honor our war dead. And not a lot happens now, either — especially compared to how it used to be celebrated.

The sad truth is Americans are a helluva lot more involved in the Super Bowl, the Kentucky Derby and the Indianapolis 500 than they are in Veterans Day and Memorial Day.

But it isn’t like this in other countries. A prime example: Anzac Day in Australia and New Zealand.

Anzac Day commemorates the WWI Battle of Gallipoli. It pitted the Turks against an Allied invasion force, and among them were Australian and New Zealand troops. (ANZAC stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps.) It was an Allied strategic and tactical blunder, and the ANZAC suffered horrendous losses. Consequently, Anzac Day was created to honor the soldiers’ sacrifice.

It changed over the years to honor all ANZAC soldiers in all wars, a combination of our Veterans and Memorial Days, but with one big difference: The Aussies and Kiwis did not let ANZAC day slip into obscurity: April 25 is celebrated widely in both countries.

Saranac Lake also celebrates Anzac Day, in our own small way.

The reason why …

Though it seems illogical for a village in the Adirondacks, about as far from Australia and New Zealand as you can get, to celebrate ANZAC, we have a very clear reason for it. Five years ago, Capt. Paul McKay, an Australian soldier, Afghanistan veteran and PTSD survivor, ended his life here. Why here? No one knows, nor does it matter. What does matter is Saranac Lake, by choice rather than default, has become Capt. McKay’s adopted, and adoptive, hometown. Thus our Anzac Day ceremony takes place to honor him and all PTSD survivors.

Estimating crowd sizes is always difficult, but without counting heads, I can say it was a good turnout, there in Triangle Park.

Frankly, being an informal guy, if not a societal outlier, I’ve never been a fan of formal ceremonies. Speeches, the mainstay of ceremonies, are especially my bugaboo. I taught speech for 35 years, so when I hear a speech – any speech — I automatically evaluate it. Timing, delivery, content, the speaker’s body language — they all get scrutinized and evaluated on the score sheet in my mind.

I’m sure almost everyone does the same off-duty thing. Dentists probably check out people’s orthodontia. Mechanics notice how well or poorly cars run. Seamstresses see if your cuffs break right.

In my defense, I’m a polite listener; I keep my reactions to myself. So there I was, the ceremony about to begin, and me ready to listen with both ears — one critical, one cynical.

An element of surprise

The ceremony had all the expected elements. There were opening remarks by Mayor Rabideau, and posting of the colors (ours and Australia’s and New Zealand’s). Helen Demong sang all three national anthems; Rev. Eric Olsen did the invocation and benediction. And in between them were, of course, speeches. As I said, all the expected elements.

But what wasn’t expected — at least by me — was how well everything was done, especially the speeches. None of them fell into the usual traps: overblown rhetoric, corny cliches and long duration. Instead, all the speeches were thought-provoking, sincere, absent of of any padding or irrelevancies — direct hits to the heart.

The main speakers were visitors from Down Under. One was Sgt. Malcolm Ryan of the Australian Army (here with Capt. Thomas Hinds, both from the Australian embassy in D.C.). The other was student at NCCC, Ella Smalley. Both of them took a moving ceremony and made it extremely moving.

When it was over I stayed a bit and shot the breeze with two of my greybeard vet buddies, Dave Staszak and George Bryjak.

Then it was time to leave, which I did. That was followed by time to reflect, which I also did.

A final note

On the front page of Jan. 22, 2014’s Enterprise was a notice announcing next day a funeral procession with Capt. McKay’s remains would leave town, on their eventual way back to Australia. It told the route through town and the departure time — 0730.

As happens, the procession didn’t leave till 0800.

Meanwhile, the people on the streets and in front of the funeral home waited without complaint for 45 minutes, on a 12-below morning. And they waited for only one reason: to pay their respects to a man no one knew, and whose name they’d never even heard a month before.

And that, friends, says more about My Home Town than words ever will.

(Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly said Armistice Day was established to commemorate the end of World War II; it was World War I.)

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