From the vantage point of a mustard-velvet divan
in an eighth-floor room of the Hotel Burnham,
my gaze through the Chicago-style bay window
rests first on an architectural detail of the building itself,
the delicacy of the gothic tracery on terra cotta veneer
intermingling with large panels of glass belying
the strength of the steely skeleton encasing me.
The historic building’s name, Reliance, suggests
not only the solidity of its construction, its
resistance to the wind whipped up off the Lake
(I recall an earlier visit to the city, years ago,
a fourteenth-storey room at the Allerton, during a
thunderstorm, a lesson in how buildings flex)
but also its endurance on the long haul from
skyscraping innovation, through multiple uses
and a decade of neglect, to its renaissance
as a charming boutique hotel, a truthful description
despite its tourist-brochure ring. Buffeting winds
aside, it is a building in which one feels secure,
not in the contemporary sense of being well-
armed with guards, alarm systems, and video-
surveillance monitors, but in an older, gentler
sense of things going on as they have done,
and properly should, that one has invested in
social rituals quite literally safe as houses.
Down and to the right, beyond the building itself,
Washington, in a series of presidential streets,
runs eastward toward Lower Michigan Avenue,
Millennium Park, and the Lake; to the left,
State Street, the east-west division line, wends
its way northward toward the heart of downtown.
A couple of blocks away, blue-glowing letters
advertise the Joffrey Ballet (they’re doing
Othello; the Sun-Times critic is stunned), and
a multi-colored vertical marquee, the old-
fashioned kind bordered in flashing round-
bulbed lights, spells out CHICAGO for any
travelers who’ve have lost their sense of place.
At the opposite corner of the intersection
looms the full-block Macy’s store on State,
with its monolithic neo-classical façade
and rather incongruous corner clock,
which marks a different era, though
it keeps time accurately all the same.
At ten-thirty on a Thursday evening, State
is relatively quiet—a few chatting-and-
strolling pedestrians, an articulated bus
rounding the corner—except for the intermittent
whoosh-rattle-rattle-whoosh of an elevated train
and the taxi horns as ubiquitous as air in this town,
and apparently taken just as much for granted,
since no one pays them any mind at all.
But in two days’ time, the scene will differ dramatically:
throngs of people lining State for the Memorial Day
parade, actually held on the Saturday before.
As a child, I loved the Macy’s parade at Thanksgiving
(the Macy’s here reminds me of it) before, as
a teenaged band geek, with the expert knowledge
that comes from having marched, badly, in one
Christmas parade, I became disillusioned because
the television broadcasts always short-change the bands.
It took me a while longer to catch on to the rampant
commercialism that now concerns me, but somewhat
hypocritically, because I cannot claim immunity,
cannot deny I’m partly here to shop, and here’s
the place to do it, home town of the department
store and Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (the hotel building
in fact once housed a Carson Pirie Scott);
a whole avenue paying tribute to consumerist miracle.
Later on came pride parades, and no one does them
like they do them in Boystown on Halsted;
I marched in Oklahoma City once myself and attended
a few in Tulsa fifteen years ago, before I finally
paraded totally over that particular rainbow. In middle age,
though, parades are not so much my thing—noisy, crowded,
nightmares of traffic flow and parking–and were
this one not coursing right alongside my hotel, I
might be tempted to skip it altogether. But
Chicago seems to be a city that loves a parade—
almost any American whose age range includes
the nineteen-eighties will immediately envision
a young Matthew Broderick dancing on a float
and lip-synching “Twist and Shout” in arguably
the best scene from arguably the best teen film
of the decade, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off—and, well,
here I am in Chicago, and there’s a parade, so
it seems the thing to do. And yet…
Memorial Day being the occasion, this event
is not only a parade, but essentially a military parade,
and that complicates things a bit. Many brave and
noble soldiers have given their lives in service to this country,
which I love, and they deserve nothing but respect and honor.
And despite my leftist liberal leanings, I have never
objected to, or questioned the necessity of national defense
(it’s the occasional national offense to which I take exception).
There are floats (competently executed, not remarkable),
bands (though we get lots of drums and not many tunes),
the inevitable police and fire vehicles (glad to have the
police officers and firefighters front and center, but
do we really need the sirens at full blast?) And
there are some living veterans taking part;
they receive scattered applause, scattered not
because of a lack of respect, but because the
watchers seem unsure of the efficacy of applause
at a parade—or whether it’s quite right
to applaud what’s been done in war, even
when done by good people for the right reasons.
Mostly, though, the marchers here are
battalion after battalion of high-school and
junior-high-school ROTC cadets. With
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell relegated to history,
ROTC has climbed a few rungs on my
ladder of institutions worthy of support,
and I know young men and women who
are ROTC products—respectful, responsible.
Nor can I deny my attraction to the uniforms:
Pretty colors! Some quite sharp, with blue or green berets,
and a Naval group all in white, resplendent
against the grayness of the day.
Nor do they seem generic or mechanical
in their movements; they are close but not
quite perfectly in synch; they are kids, and
no uniform can contain adolescent idiosyncrasy.
And yet, I can’t quite free my mind from
intruding images of newsreel Hitler Youth,
recalling lines from Wilfred Owen and feeling
uneasy at the unclear boundaries between
patriotism and nationalism, between honoring
the valiant dead and perpetuating a world view
that will force future generations to do the same.
A few days later, I will learn from Wikipedia,
the bane of scholars but a joy for poets and songwriters,
who bear little responsibility for factual accuracy,
that the origins of the holiday, first called Decoration Day,
include Southern ladies’ custom of decorating graves
during and after the War Between the States, though further research
reveals the Southern states initially refused to acknowledge
the day. Though that has changed, most Southern states,
including my native Alabama, still maintain a separate
Confederate Memorial Day, a tradition understandable
given the southern bent for glorification of the
non-existent past, but probably not especially
conducive to contemporary racial harmony.
Though I have heard the term Decoration Day before,
I’ve always assumed it had to do only with the bestowing
of medals rather than specifically honoring the military dead by
decorating their graves. And yet I somehow imagine that, if
the ghosts of our fallen were to pass among us, they would find
wildflowers on a quiet grave more apt than elaborate bouquets,
ribbons, and parades. Thus I feel those Southern ladies
might have had the best intentions, even if perhaps their
execution went a bit astray. As with any tradition that arose
in and after the Civil War, though, and whatever one’s
theory about states’ rights versus slavery as the reason
for the war, the uncomfortable issue of racism just won’t go away.
But go away is exactly what many Southern African Americas
felt compelled to do in the decades after the war, and
some came right here, “midwestern” Chicago lying more
or less due north of “southeastern” Alabama; perhaps dreams
of the city beckoned to them as the flashing marquee draws my
eye to light, when I look out from my room at night.
And perhaps it partly explains why, more than once,
I’ve heard a strikingly Southern turn of phrase,
and even caught a snatch of familiar accent
while waiting for an Orange-Line train at
the station perched above Randolph and Wabash.
Parades are in their way akin to decoration, of course,
festive in appearance even if somber in purpose,
and neither the war dead nor the gray day’s
lingering chill will much dampen the spirits of the
Saturday crowd watching the parade and cheering
on their kids, mingling with diverse friends and families
in Grant or Millennium park for food and fellowship,
or just taking advantage of the holiday sales
or popping into Macy’s for a quick lunch
in the food court on the basement level.
Among the people at the park, I see some of the
ROTC kids, some partially changed, with mixed bits
of uniform and bits of mufti, now at ease
with family members or hanging with friends,
a reminder that not only do we inhabit a diverse world,
but we individually inhabit multiple worlds as well.
I will watch for half an hour, then yield myself to Macy’s;
the market calls–many items up to eighty percent off!
But all that will happen Saturday, still the future
from the perspective of my Thursday-evening divan.
My eye drifts back to the hotel façade,
the intricate decoration of the terra cotta,
also a remembrance of times past. And yet
the past never really dies, even if its denizens do.
And though many soldiers are fallen, many people
soldier on, in war and in peace, within the military
and without it. Though decoration in some senses
seems superficial, negligible, even frivolous—
some might say inappropriate to an occasion
honoring the dead—sometimes the art, the “mere” decoration
is what endures, what brings us back our ghosts.
T. Allen Culpepper