A Stillness On Memorial Day Morning
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
It’s 7:20 on a sunny Tuesday morning here in Arkansas, 10 minutes before the polls open all across the state for this year’s primary elections. Half a dozen voters drift into the neighborhood fire station to wait, exchange greetings, look at the sample ballots posted on the wall and catch up with old friends they haven’t seen in a while. We talk in muted tones, as if waiting to enter a church.
Election Day is a kind of democratic communion, in which each citizen rises from his place in the congregation and goes forward to cast his secret ballot. It’s the most public and most private of our civic rites.
It’s restful here in the old station. This is the calm between two storms – the wind-up of the campaign with all its last-minute appeals and fulminations, and the hullabaloo of election night with its victory statements and concession speeches as the returns come in.
Election Day is a 12-hour lull between those two barrages. From the time the first ballot is cast in the morning and the last one that evening, there’s a chance for perspective to set in. It is all up to the people now, and they make their decision in quiet, orderly procession. Yes, as if in church.
In the back of the fire station sits an antique fire truck – from the 1930s, maybe the 1940s? It’s behind a rope, its years of service done, but the air around the old pumper still seems charged with alarms and emergencies. Some echo of a now gone haste and danger clings to it like smoke – a reminder that the old machine, now a kind of sculpture resting there, once clanged through the streets on urgent, life saving missions.
The old truck wasn’t made for display purposes – any more than free elections were intended as only a ceremonial exercise. Both were meant to perform a vital function.
This election day morning you want to capture the atmosphere at the old station as you would take a snapshot for the family album – as a reminder of the way we were, and are, and should be. There’s nothing like an ordinary American polling place to sum up those two complementary poles of the American system: liberty and order. Those are not ordinary qualities in most of the world.
You can imagine Norman Rockwell over in the corner, pipe stuck in a corner of his mouth, painting this scene for the old Saturday Evening Post, maybe as part of his Four Freedoms series. All is peace, neighborliness, simplicity as voters get ready to mark their ballots.
The rest of the world seems far away. People haven’t risked their lives to take part in this election. There are no mullahs or commissars or presidents-for-life around to jail the opposition and manipulate the returns. The sounds you hear are those of passing traffic, not the boom of artillery or the explosion of a car bomb. No wonder Americans are isolationists at heart and in soul. We want to live in our idealized Norman Rockwell world without having to bother with all the dangers out there. Who wouldn’t?
But we know we can’t ignore the world, for it certainly will not ignore us. We know there’s a war on even if we forget. We know Americans, along with our dwindling band of allies, are fighting and dying this bright morning in a cruel war, and that somewhere in the bowels of the Pentagon, the NSA and CIA, a secret war is being fought to keep chaos at bay. We know, but we forget. For all around us this very American morning is peace.
In the end, Memorial Day isn’t just about putting up flags in the cemetery, or delivering patriotic orations, or telling war stories. In the end, it is about peaceful scenes like this one at Fire Station No. 10 in Little Rock, Ark. It is about striped tents and country music and family picnics. It is about all those who through the years were lost in war’s horrors in order to preserve the simple, peaceful things.
It’s a complicated thing – it can be an awful thing – to build and defend a country where simple things are taken for granted. But we take this peace as our due, and complain when it is interrupted in the slightest way, as if liberty and order were ours from the beginning, not the result of the struggles and sacrifices of each generation.
But we cannot escape history, as Mr. Lincoln reminded us at another time of testing. For the moment, however, history and history’s demands seem far away. So we savor the day, unaware of the tremors beneath our feet, the malice of history closing in. But at certain special moments, we grow aware, and are allowed an inkling of our debt to the dead. As on this bright morning at the polls, where every ballot cast is like a prayer in their memory.