Memorial Day was called Decoration Day in my house and it always meant a trip to White Haven.
White Haven is where my dad grew up on a little farm just outside of town. It’s also where most of the people he loved are buried.
But love wasn’t a word Dad threw around much. And if he felt it on Decoration Day as he stood at the graves of his mom, dad, brothers, sister, aunts and uncles, he never said it.
Come to think of it, I’m not sure Dad went to the grave sites at all. If he did, he surely did not linger.
No, for Dad, Decoration Day in White Haven had more to do with the American Legion, located just across the street from the cemetery.
While some girl from the local high school belted out the national anthem to start the service, Dad would be belting back shots and beers with Uncle Johnny and their boyhood chums at the Legion bar.
Dad and Uncle Johnny were a pair. They were the closest of the Ackerman brothers and enjoyed each other’s company immensely.
Uncle Johnny always reminded me of Humphrey Bogart both in looks and voice, especially when he laughed.
He was Dad’s older brother. He never left White Haven.
Uncle Johnny used to claim that if he wasn’t dead by the time he turned 50, he’d hire someone to shoot him. “Half a century is long enough for anybody to live,” he’d say.
Turned out he made it past 50 but still died way too young. And he didn’t have to spend money on a marksman. The unfiltered Camels did the job.
The whole clan would wind up at a cookout in Uncle Johnny’s and Aunt Charlotte’s backyard Decoration Day afternoon and later make an obligatory visit to Great Aunt Violet’s.
Dad and Uncle Johnny were afraid of Aunt Violet, or so it seemed to me. I could tell by the way they tapped the ashes of their cigarettes into the cuffs of their pants in Aunt Violet’s neat-as-a-pin living room rather than trouble her for an ash tray. And by the way they placed their beer bottles on the floor next to their feet for fear of leaving a ring on her well-waxed table tops.
The highlight of the morning service at the cemetery was the reading of the honor roll. Another high school kid would play taps and someone would read the name of each and every White Haven boy who gave his life in the line of duty.
Mom would gather us up and make us stand almost at attention for this, which was okay with me because I knew I’d get to hear my own name and it always made me proud. Edward Ackerman was one of two of my dad’s brothers killed in World War II. I still have his Purple Heart which Dad gave to me when my grandmother died.
Aunt Shirley, Dad’s sister and the baby of the family, always cried at the mention of her fallen brothers.
Which is just another reason, I suspect, that Dad and Uncle Johnny stayed at the bar. Aunt Shirley’s tears would have forced them to think thoughts they’d just as soon not think. Their only defense against Aunt Shirley’s emotions would have been to make fun of her and that would have ruined the whole day.
The Decoration Day trip to White Haven I remember most made me want to cry, too, but for a different reason.
In 1961, I could have been the poster boy for puberty, starting to find girls more interesting than baseball and not quite knowing what to do about it. Girls made me do things I wasn’t proud of, like dancing in the aisles of the American Theater during the movie “Twist Around the Clock” with Chubby Checker. Thank God there were no cell phones with video capabilities nor Facebook back then.
Chubby Checker wore shoes that laced on the sides and we came to call them “twist shoes.” I begged my mother for a pair for Easter and she gave in. The problem was that they didn’t have my size at the Triangle Shoe Store in Pittston. So I insisted the ones a half-size too small fit perfectly and mom — against her better judgment — went along.
The first time I wore them for any length of time was that Decoration Day and riding home from White Haven in the rear seat of Dad’s 9-passenger Chevy Impala station wagon, I learned the high cost of being cool.
My feet throbbed like the bass drum in the White Haven school marching band.
Since turning to Mom and risking an “I told you so,” was out of the question, I suffered in silence. Slipping them off was not an option either for that would have raised questions I preferred not to answer.
But pain did not stop me from wearing those shoes every chance I got.
There was nothing like having a pretty girl sitting next to me in home room point to my feet and exclaim, “Wow, twist shoes!”
To which I would casually respond: “What? These? Oh, yeah, I guess that’s what they call them.”
I did mention puberty, didn’t I?