When I was a schoolboy, the Memorial Day parade was both exciting and solemn. In Bridgton, schoolkids met on Depot Street for the parade and were given small flags to carry, and a promise of free ice cream if we finished the march. There was no horseplay or fooling around, as this was a somber occasion.

Before the parade began, people filled the grandstand at the ballfield to hear speeches by prominent citizens. The poem “In Flanders Fields” was recited by a high school girl, and the Gettysburg Address by a high school boy. My attention wandered to several elderly men who wore remnants of uniforms from earlier wars. Some looked sad, others reflective, and still others wiped at a tear.

The units of the parade formed and headed for Main Street, with the town band leading the way. It was fascinating watching the drum majors strut along in their fancy uniforms. They were so precise with their twirling batons.

A color guard with a member from each service marched just behind the band. Members of the Grand Army of the Republic (a Union Army veterans group) were present, and the Boy and Girl Scout troops represented the younger generation. A score of kids with their flags brought up the rear.

The parade halted at the foot of Highland Lake for a ceremony commemorating those service members lost at sea. The men in their naval uniforms were so impressive, I decided that when I grew up I was going to join the Navy. The town barber, dressed in Navy white, tossed a wreath onto the water, and as I watched it slowly float away, the sound of a bugle playing taps from the opposite shore was the saddest thing I had ever heard.

We marched past the Civil War monument to the South High Street cemetery for another brief service. All across America, cemeteries are tended with care for Memorial Day, and flags are placed at the graves of military members.

Then came the long march back to Depot Street and the promised ice cream. I noticed that many homes had a star in the window denoting that a family member was in the service, and a gold star meant that person was not coming home.

Our Civil War monument stands at the top of Main Hill, and as I observe it today, I see a bronze soldier standing resolute atop a solid granite pedestal. He holds a staff several feet taller than he. On it is the furled flag of our country.

His cap is set square on his head. Sergeant stripes adorn his dress uniform. He gazes not down the main thoroughfare but out across the village, ever watchful, ever vigilant.

What strength, what fortitude, what perseverance. Every day and night, he is there. Through the heat of summer and the winter freeze, his protective aura never changes. He represents every man and woman who has taken up arms to protect and defend our country.