Heading back to the home country for Memorial Day, to fill up the plate and the heart

Posted by Kevin Woster on
The Post 179 color guard assembles at the Kennebec Cemetery

Some places just don’t do potlucks like they used to. But Kennebec is not among those places. Especially on Memorial Day.

So going through the food line Monday at the gym in Kennebec, I had to marvel aloud at the alluring selection of grilled chicken and baked-bean dishes and goulash and salads of one kind or another, to say nothing of the assortment of delectable desserts.

I was waxing culinarily poetic at the sumptuous spread when Kent Hamiel paused above his plate in line behind me and offered a quizzical expression.

“Now Kevin,” he said. “Have you ever been to a feed in Lyman County where there wasn't enough to eat?”

I allowed that I couldn't recall such a calamity, then headed off with my heaping plate toward the table where Kent’s wife, Mildred, sat across from my brother, Jim, who had already dispensed with the blessing and was aggressively engaging the chicken.

And by the time I had settled down next to Mildred and watched Kent squeeze in next to Jim, I realized that I had made the right decision, going home to Lyman County for Memorial Day.

Which was not to diminish my initial plan to spend Memorial Day morning at the Black Hills National Cemetery, where volunteers were to have placed a small U.S. flag at each grave — thousands upon thousands of them.

What an extraordinary image that must have been, as veteran upon veteran was honored. I’m sorry I missed it, and hope to make it there next year.

But brother Jim called last week with an offer I couldn't refuse:

 “Hey, I’m running out to that Memorial Day deal they have a the cemetery in Reliance,” he said. “Then everybody will go to Kennebec for a program and the salute at the cemetery there. Then there’s a potluck at the gym, of course.”

Of course. An old-style potluck at a familiar location where, if history is any indicator, someone would surely call out a welcome to "the Woster boys," which is pretty hard to beat for a guy who's 65 and a brother a decade older.

But in case that wasn't enough, Jim added: “Then in the afternoon, they’re having a surprise birthday party for Ruth Ann.”

Case closed. Memorial Day plan amended.

It wasn’t just any birthday party for Ruth Ann McManus, after all. It was her 70th. And arriving on Memorial Day, it would coalesce a community of people and emotions deeply connected to the loss, now nearly four years ago, of Ruth Ann’s husband of almost 50 years and our cousin, Ronnie “Red” McManus.

Up until Red’s always-welcoming heart gave out on Sept. 5, 2013, he was just about everything a small South Dakota town — and a large South Dakota family — could hope for. From his decades as mayor to his leadership as fire chief to his years as manager of the Main Street Cenex and foundational roles at St. Mary’s Church, the Reliance Cemetery and the Lyman County Foundation, Red was a force to be celebrated.

And Ruth Ann was the rock that force leaned upon.

So in celebrating her 70th, we would also memorialize their half century together and strengthen our connections with the children and grandchildren who would be at the center of friends and extended relatives at the birthday bash.

And how fitting it would be, since Memorial Day matters to the memories of all who have died, even though those who served are and should be the focus.

 Kent Hamiel put that in perspective shortly before 9:30 central time Monday morning in the Reliance Cemetery, as the wind pushed around members of the Kennebec-Reliance Post 179 American Legion honor guard.

We stood near the statues and plaques honoring fallen veterans, before slipping off to the other side of the cemetery grounds, where my kin — on both the Woster and McManus sides — lie buried.

  As post commander, Kent was obligated to speak a few worlds.And the ones he spoke mattered.

“Some see it as a three-day weekend. And it’s also a time to spend with family,” Kent said called into the gathering gale. “But I’m sure everyone of you knows someone who died in our service or since passed on. And we’re here to celebrate them.”

The celebration at Reliance was emphasized by the eight members of the color guard who raised their rifles and fired three rounds, a flinch-causing salute that was repeated later at the Kennebec Cemetery — where an impressive array of American flags snapped and waved in a wind that was edging up toward ferocious.

First, though, came the program in the nearby gymnasium, where nearly 100 people gathered to hear the names of military veterans and auxiliary members read aloud and listen to Crystal Brakke sing the Star Spangled Banner and God Bless the USA.

There were familiar names of the list of veterans from Kennebec who have died, including M.A. Sharpe, who served as governor for two terms in the 1940s, and James Abdnor, a former U.S. Senator and House member.

I stopped at Abdnor’s grave, where the smooth stone was reflecting the blue skies passing clouds above, to say a prayer for the gentle man who meant so much to his community, county an state.

Some who served the nation in uniform never got the chance for careers in politics or anything else. Because they died in that service. And during the program in the gym, Kent Hamiel led the attendees in 30 seconds of silence in honor of those great Americans.

Eighteen-year-old Brady Hamer, a 2106 Boys State attendee, was featured speaker for the program. He gave a history of Memorial Day celebrations in the United States and said he is free to head for Northern State University this fall and select his own path in life because of the sacrifices made in the name of freedom.

In his closing prayer, Deacon Steve McLaughlin Sr.  urged all of us to remember those sacrifices and take the Memorial Day spirit out into our daily lives beyond the once-and-year celebrations.

“Let us always be mindful of the sacrifices these men and women endured so we may live in freedom,” he said.

This year I went home to Lyman County to find that mindfulness. Next year, perhaps, I'll be at the Black Hills National Cemetery, among the thousands of graveside flags.

I might even invite Jim to join me.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SDPB, Friends of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, or the State of South Dakota.