When I was a boy, it was called Armistice Day. In recent years, the name was changed to Veterans Day. But, whatever we call it, the day we celebrate on November 11 has to evoke memories of patriotic events of the past.
At P.S. 35 in the Bronx, we had a principal named Miss Barr. Her family, we were told, were friends of John Pershing, commander of American forces in Europe in World War I. In the 3d and 4th grade, thanks to Miss Barr’s leadership, we celebrated Armistice Day with fervor.
We learned songs of World War I like: "Over There," "The Rose of No-Man’s Land," "Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag.’’ I loved the songs and sang them, even though my parents were pacifists. What red-blooded American boy could resist the lyrics of "Over There"?:
Johnny get your gun, get your gun, Put it on the run, on the run, on the run! Hear them calling you and me -- Every son of liberty! Over there. Over there. Send the word, send the word -- over there. That the Yanks are coming; the Yanks are coming. Drums tum, tumming everywhere. We’ll be over. We’re coming over and we won’t come back till it’s over, over there!
World War I ended, we were taught, on the 11th day of November, 1918, at 11o’clock in the morning. The 11th month on the 11th day at 11 A.M., 11-11-11.
We school kids got it. We understood why it was a hallowed day. We Americans seem to relate to numbers when it comes to solemn holidays -- like 9/11.
In the Bronx there’s a park off the Grand Concourse near the courthouse named after Joyce Kilmer, a poet, journalist and soldier. He was killed in action on the Western Front in World War I. Kilmer wrote the lines: "I think that I shall never see/ a poem as lovely as a tree."
Kilmer Park is filled with trees and each has a plaque at its base honoring a soldier who died in World War I. I remember walking through that park as a child and reading the inscriptions under the trees. I marveled at the number of young men who participated in the war and didn’t come back.
On Armistice Day and Memorial Day, the trees were often adorned with tiny flags. Armistice Day became Veterans Day in 1954 when President Eisenhower signed the change into law. Veterans groups representing people who served in World War II, the Korean War and other conflicts had championed the legislation.
I served in the Navy for three years in World War II. For a time I was a member of a group called the American Veteran Committee. But, while I identified with many veterans, I didn’t want to be a member of any veterans group. So I quit.
But now I’m getting mellow. Being a veteran has greater meaning to me. And, as I reminisced about the songs we sang as kids, I started thinking about the songs of World War II. I remembered: "Stage Door Canteen."
"I left my heart at the Stage Door Canteen/ I left it there with a girl named Eileen."
Now, I never knew a girl named Eileen. But recalling those old songs makes me nostalgic just the same. Veterans Day, formerly "Armistice Day," brings out the sentimentality in an old vet.