“We Lived, Felt Dawn, Saw Sunset Glow”

3 Min read

Memorial Day

Vietnam War

Toolbox: Speech writing and public speaking

Creative nonfiction / True story

Poetry for Emergencies

*

Last fall I received a request to be the speaker for Memorial Day. I was surprised and then I let it sink in. Me? The Local VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) hosts the parade and ceremony in town each year. They asked me to send along my resume.

After I was approved, I listened and talked to previous speakers to get a sense of the subject matter, the delivery, and tone. My friend had spoken about local war dead buried in the cemetery, their bravery and actions. The Commander of the VFW wanted to meet to go over the speech. The topic would be left up to me.

I asked what it should be about.

He said, “Oh, ten to fifteen minutes.”

Not in those exact words. But, time was a concern, because it’s hot on Memorial Day. And marchers walk from St. Mark’s down through town to the cemetery, roughly 45 minutes.

“Got it,” I said. The cemetery is a special place for me. My father is buried there and it will be 15 years this September, since he died. I began by visiting the military graves, often grouped together with standardized headstones and a flag pole.

I visited the memorials around town. The Town Hall has large wall-mounted plaques with the names of residents who served in every conflict, going back to the Revolution. Mead Park has a memorial to WWII war dead.

At God’s Acre– the grassy knoll where the town churches are located–the Wayside Cross stands in memorial to Those Honored Dead. I parked and got out of the car.

What! Who knew? At the base was a plaque with thirty-six names inscribed for WWII and six names for Vietnam.

*

What is the story in all this? This was the question I was most curious about. And, I believed the story would reveal itself during the research.

I read about a resident who died in a military training accident in California during the Vietnam War, so I had seven residents to learn about: this young man and the six names on the plaque.

By the end of February I had pieced together seven stories. And my structure began to take hold. I wanted people to think about the purpose of Memorial Day, to make that real and alive, to feel it in a palpable way. That would need to include not only a sense of who these residents were, but I would need to set up my own Vietnam story to provide a connection and context. Then, the main story would focus on the seven residents, and close with those serving and dying today, highlighting funerals I’ve attended in the last nine months.

Three stories. The holy trinity in writing, not unlike the three-act play.

I’m not a natural speaker. And, I want to do my level best for this incredible honor. So I’ve decided to tell the stories in present tense, to illuminate the lives of these heroic individuals as young vibrant residents.

I’ve pieced together a storyboard of photos of them as students, or as young people on the cusp of their adult lives. (Not in uniform).

As John McCrae, the soldier poet and physician of WWI, wrote: “We are the Dead. Short days ago / We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, / Loved and were loved, and now we lie, In Flanders fields.”

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To learn more, click on the events page on site toolbar, or click here.

Seven Residents who died during the Vietnam War

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So dear reader, wish me luck. I drafted the speech so many times I’ve lost count. I’ve written and rewritten and rewritten. And I’ve practiced it. The hardest part is to not cry. And, I hope to laugh at the funny parts, the humor in my own life and in theirs.

I am scheduled to speak after the parade on Monday, assuming the weather holds. If not, the town hosts the ceremony in Town Hall.

The VFW guys said I’m the first woman to speak at this event, so that is an honor I hope to get right. Hair, clothes, manner, all these things to consider. But ultimately I want to be worthy of the occasion, to tell an American story about those who make telling such stories possible.

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FOOTNOTES

*Title and quote from In Flanders Fields by John McCrae. The poem helped inspire my thinking about these residents, to bring them to life. To let us see them as we all once were, as young and full of adventure, ready to take on the world. This was especially challenging for these seven men, given the era and the division over the Vietnam War and the draft, which would come to an end in 1973.

In Flanders Fields

BY JOHN MCCRAE

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

    That mark our place; and in the sky

    The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

    Loved and were loved, and now we lie,

        In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

    The torch; be yours to hold it high.

    If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

        In Flanders fields.

**How can you help and what can you do? Pause for a minute on Memorial Day to remember the Fallen, to say a prayer of gratitude.  Post a prayer, poem, remembrance, photo if suitable, onto the Vietnam Veterans Memorial’s Wall of Faces. Never forget.

*

May 23, 2024

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About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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