August 2, 2017: Purple Heart Day–Remembering the fallen

August 2, 2017 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

On Monday, August 7, Belmont will observe Purple Heart Day.  The day commemorates those men and women who have received the Purple Heart in service to our country.

First created in 1782 by General George Washington, commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, the award was then known as the Badge of Military Merit.  The Badge fell into disuse after the Revolutionary War until being resurrected in World War I.  According to one history of the medal, the Purple Heart is awarded to any member of the Armed Forces who, while serving after April 5, 1917, has been wounded, killed, or has died after being wounded.  (The United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917.)  Since then, while the Pentagon does not track the exact number, current estimates are that roughly 1.8 million Purple Hearts have been awarded. The categories of Purple Heart recipients have been expanded in recent years.

Purple Heart Day is not a “holiday.” Neither government offices nor businesses are closed.  No parades are held.  No fireworks are set off. It is a day of introspection, a day to say “thank you” to all those who have served through the military. Residents would be well-served by grabbing the kids and attending the Purple Heart Day morning ceremony at the Belmont Public Library.

I do have one “worry” about Purple Heart Day.  It is the same concern I have with donating to local food drives only at Thanksgiving; or embracing diversity only on Martin Luther King Day.  Appreciation of, and respect for, our veterans should not be something that is taken out and dusted off for a Purple Heart Day ceremony, only then to be returned to the back shelves of our minds to await next year’s ceremonies.

(That’s not to say that such appreciation implies an unqualified buy-in to all military policies. What our men and women serve to protect is the right to think as we wish.  That includes the right to dissent.)

Devoting a special day to acknowledge those sacrifices not only of the men and women who have fallen in service, but those also of the families of the men and women who have fallen, is the right thing to do.  Consider just one type of sacrifice: experiencing a disability.  The numbers are staggering. Of the nearly 1,000 veterans living in Belmont, nearly one-quarter now have at least one disability. (That disability rate is more than three times higher than the disability rate in Belmont’s total adult population). Part of that, of course, is because many of our veterans are aging.  Nearly 40% of Belmont’s veterans are age 75 or older, while more than two-thirds are age 65 or older. This, however, may be a situation where the numbers may get in the way of the story.  The “story” is one of service, and of sacrifice, men and women, generation upon generation.

For those who perhaps want to do more than simply attend a ceremony on Purple Heart Day, learning about Belmont’s Veterans Memorial Committee (www.BelmontVets.com) is worth your time.  That Committee is “dedicated to establishing and preserving Belmont’s memorials to its veterans and those who died in service.” For example, the Veteran’s Committee was the driving force behind restoration of the monument to those who served in WWI.  It is also spearheading the effort to renovate and expand the memorial at Clay Pit Pond acknowledging Belmont residents who have served in all conflicts since the Civil War.

Let us never forget to appreciate those who have fallen in service.  But, let us also not “remember to remember” only on those days that are specially set aside for doing so.

February 5, 2015: Story telling as local history

February 5, 2015: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Several things happened this past week that were strangely related. The blizzard came through. The town released the list of projects for which it recommends Community Preservation Act (“CPA”) funding next year. And my friend Tim’s aged mother, a lifelong resident of Belmont, unexpectedly passed-away. The three events in such close proximity got me to thinking about the lost art of story-telling.

Rudyard Kipling once observed “if history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” Belmont loses part of its rich history every day.

The blizzard of 2015 made me wonder what folks did that day. On our street, neighbors came together to collectively clear the sidewalks, using more snowblowers than shovels. I wonder, however, who might have regaled us with stories not merely about the Blizzard of 1978, but about the Blizzard of 1958, or what came to be known as the Great White Hurricane of 1888?

Not just the adults, nor just public officials, of course. What kids found the biggest, fastest, sledding hill on that March day of 1958? And how did they get there (and with whom)? Who made the best storm-day corn chowder or baked the best storm-day bread?

The blizzard last week brought back to me how much I miss Jo and Connie Venuti, the sisters who ran the little market in Waverley Square (to whom I turned to stock up on pre-storm supplies). Jo and Connie would tell stories about Belmont that could hold my attention for hours.

But this year’s blizzard also created new stories. Standing in the middle of our street, I listened to Steven talk about how he (with his puppy Kelvin) took advantage of snow-clogged roads to tour a car-free, bike-free Belmont, a sight rarely seen today.

I wonder what stories Tim’s mom could have told (weather-related or not) about life in Belmont, not only when she was growing up, but as she watched her children (and then her grandchildren) grow up. Did she (and her childhood friends) swipe apples from Belmont’s prodigious orchards (as my brothers and I used to swipe the occasional strawberry in Iowa)?

“From the dawn of community,” says Barbara Ganley, founder and director of Community Expressions, “wisdom has lived in stories.” Ganley says stories reveal “the rhythms of a place.”

One allowable use of CPA funds involves historic preservation. This year, Town Meeting will be asked for funds to help restore the historic Homer House and to renovate the Wellington Station.

Belmont devotes considerable time to caring for its historic buildings. Belmont renovated both the Homer municipal building and Town Hall. The Benton Library, historically significant buildings at McLean Hospital, and the Waverley Square, Harvard Lawn and Belmont Center fire stations have all been preserved.

The contemporaneous experiences of a community, however, are also worth preserving. During the late 1930s and early 1940s, the Federal Writers Project (“FWP”) recorded thousands of life histories. The purpose of the FWP, an agency of the New Deal, was to document the ways in which ordinary people were coping with the Great Depression. More recent work, says the American Social History Project of George Mason University, has helped “realize oral history’s potential for restoring to the record the voices of the historiographically silent.”

Efforts might well be justified to preserve our community’s spoken memories. Whether located in our Municipal Library, at the Belmont Historical Society, Belmont High School, the Belmont Media Center, on YouTube, or elsewhere, whether and how to create an ongoing oral history project to capture and preserve the lives of ordinary Belmont residents, young and old, merits a public conversation.