Memorial Day in West Texas

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The Christian Motorcycle Association smoked briskets for the annual Memorial Day Picnic, and so I’m sitting under an elm in Lakeside Park, gnawing on gristle. To my right at the end of the bench, Granddad rests in the only patch of shade the tree has to offer. An ice storm broke most of the branches last winter and the county trimmed the rest to stumps. Granddad’s left arm is in a sling, but he's making steady progress on his plate of barbecue. He turned ninety last September. The only man here who remembers fighting World War II.

Around us, old women with snow-colored hair gossip at picnic tables. A chocolate-smeared kid runs crying into the arms of his abuela. He disappears into the folds of her aqua-blue muumuu. The few cowboys who made the trip into town fidget with their curling mustaches. Denim shirts tucked in out of respect, you can make out the Copenhagen rings wearing through their Wranglers. A few local businessmen mill about shaking hands, making sure to be seen. Beads of sweat glisten on their brows while they smile and pose for the local paper, patriotic neckties so bright and loud not even grayscale can mute the sentiment.

Half the crowd rode motorcycles from some nearby town. Lamesa, Slaton, Big Spring, maybe Hobbs. They’re clad in oil-black leather vests, boots, chaps, hats, all patched up with the stars and stripes. Across their shoulders, club names are stitched in big, block letters: Resurrection Riders. Sons of God. Soldiers for Jesus.

The bikers sport mohawks, mullets, and do-rags. Bald eagles claw at words like “FREEDOM” and “HONOR” from the back of faded tie-dyed t-shirts. Flames lick up the sleeves of others, while demonic clowns or burning skulls jeer from the front. If you didn’t know any better, looking around here, you might think Memorial Day is a celebration of Saint Harley Davidson.

Across the park, I can hear the high-school choir launch into the national anthem. I pick up the melody before the tune is drowned in revving engines. A cover band follows, and I catch fragmentary slivers of song—country girls shaking it under a yellow moon and someone, somewhere wasn’t born no fortunate son.

A passerby slips a mini-flag into Granddad’s shirt pocket. It moves in a breeze that carries the smell of baked beans and smoking Pall Malls. The world has moved since we sat. The elm’s dash of shade has nearly found me. I try to imagine what Granddad thinks about all this. He was eighteen years old when he boarded the U.S.S. Pennsylvania, a battleship that fired more rounds on the enemy than any vessel in American naval history. He remembers it all vividly. The excitement of leaving behind those damn, dusty cotton fields. That unfathomably vast Pacific. The smell of death on a Japanese shore. He unspools each of his war stories with care, delicately handling the memories as if they were the timeworn pages of a family Bible. But now he sits mostly quiet, spooning potato salad into his mouth. The silver cross pinned to his suspenders glints in the sun.

Sitting beside him, there’s a world of feelings inside of me I cannot articulate. When we stand to go, I put my arms around him. I tell him thanks. He smiles and nods and starts for home.

The music has ended. The bikes are thundering elsewhere. Packets of pepper and iodized salt littler the ground like ticker-tape from some long-ago patriot’s parade. The wind lessens the late spring heat, rattles the few leaves still clinging to the elm. Lifted by a sudden gust, a white napkin streaked blood-red with grease flutters against cloudless blue.

**Thank you to all who have served.