Decoration Day

hoteldetail (2)

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.


Copyright 2013

T. Allen Culpepper