I don’t know when it began — perhaps in 1868, when “Decoration Day” first honored Civil War veterans — but anyone now alive who grew up here has strong memories of the downtown tradition.
The route changes. So do businesses along the way. And of course, fashions.
But — as these photos (courtesy of David Barton) show — Memorial Day in Westport always draws a crowd.
When the parade marched south on Main Street, the Post Road was anchored by Colgan’s drug store and luncheonette. Next to it were (in order) Colonial restaurant, Gristede’s grocery store and Marvel’s Bakery. Click on or hover over to enlarge.
The parade then made a quick turn onto Taylor Place, before ending at Jesup Green.
It’s the one day each year that our sophisticated, hedge fund-filled suburb turns into an All-American village. The parade is filled with countless cops, youth soccer players, Y’s Men, Suzuki violinists, firefighters, library and Westport Country Playhouse representatives, and (of course) military vets and school band glockenspielers.
Everyone else who is not marching is on the sidewalk, enjoying the show.
But when the parade ends, not everyone makes it over to Veterans Green across from Town Hall.
That’s a shame. That’s where the real meaning of Memorial Day takes place. It’s a quick half hour of patriotic music, a few greetings from dignitaries.
And a speech from the grand marshal.
Ed Vebell, in his Compo Beach studio.
This year’s marshal is Ed Vebell. He’s that increasingly rare — but particularly important — American: a World War II veteran.
Ed turned 96 yesterday. He still lives alone, a few steps from the beach.
It takes him a while to get ready in the morning. He’ll get up extra early on Monday. He won’t speak long — his eyesight is going, and he can’t read speeches that well — but, he says, “I’ve got some war stories to tell.”
Does he ever.
Ed joined the Army Air Force in 1942. A talented artist-reporter, he was dropped behind enemy lines in Algiers, Italy and France. He’d sketch enemy equipment and positions, then be picked up 3 days later.
“I was a good target for snipers,” Ed says. “The photographers just took their pictures and ducked down. I had to stand up and draw.”
Of course, he adds, “when you’re 20 you think you’re invincible.”
He had good reason to think that. He tumbled from the Swiss Alps in a Jeep (he landed in snow-covered trees). He was lost at sea for 11 days. A sword pierced his chest. He was hit by a locomotive.
But he survived. And, Ed says, “it was all really something. I was a young kid from Chicago who had never even seen the ocean.”
An Ed Vebell illustration made in Italy, in 1944.
When the war ended, Ed stayed in France for nearly 3 years. He worked for a French newspaper, enjoyed the Folies Bergère, met Charles de Gaulle and Edith Piaf — and covered the Nuremberg trials.
Returning to America, he worked for Readers Digest, Time and Life. He illustrated books and advertisements.
He also represented the US as a fencer, at Helskinki in 1952. (He made the semifinals.)
Oh yeah: A book he wrote about his experiences — “An Artist at War” — comes out soon.
Westport’s public safety and Parks & Rec personnel are following the weather patterns closely. A final decision on whether or not to hold the Memorial Day parade will be announced by 7 a.m. tomorrow (Monday) morning.
If the parade is cancelled, the public is encouraged to attend the Memorial Day ceremony at Town Hall at 10 a.m. Monday.
It’s a yearly tradition: The Y’s Men win the “Best Float” competition. They did it again last year, for their depiction of the Japanese surrender to Gen. MacArthur. They’ve worked long and hard on this year’s float — but bad weather may wash out all their hard work.
The Memorial Day parade is one of Westport’s favorite town events.
Everyone has a favorite spot to watch from. Everyone has a favorite band, float or marcher to photograph.
But why share them only with a few hundred dear pals, casual acquaintances and random how’d-they-get-on-my-list Facebook “friends”?
Tomorrow, let all of Westport see “your” Memorial Day parade. Send a few (not all!) of your photos to “06880” (email: email@example.com). Deadline: noon. Please include brief identification, if needed, and of course your own name.
I’ll post some (not all!) in the afternoon.
And be creative! We want special photos, for our special parade.
Westport celebrates Memorial Day in many ways. Here’s a simple shot from the parade route.
The stereotype of World War II veterans is that they don’t like to talk about their service. They did what they had to. They came home. They got on with their lives.
Tomorrow’s Westport Memorial Day grand marshal fits that stereotype perfectly.
Bruce Allen was a combat infantryman, serving as a gunner in the 78th Division. His decorations include a Purple Heart (for wounds at the Remagen River Bridge in 1945), Bronze Star and Croix de Guerre.
Bruce downplays it all. After the war, he says, “I wanted to be away from all that. I never look back. Always forward.” He’s been to just one high school reunion, and did not join any veterans group.
Bruce Allen (Photo/Larry Untermeyer for WestportNow.com)
After his service, he majored in theater and English at Wesleyan University. He worked in TV production at NBC and ABC (and freelanced at CBS), and became a producer/director at J. Walter Thompson and Grey Advertising. He was also a vice president and production supervisor at Grey.
Bruce and his wife Marjorie moved to Westport in 1957. His brother and sister-in-law (who was also Marjorie’s sister) already lived here. Bruce and his wife loved the water.
While scoutmaster of Troop 39, 13 boys became Eagle Scouts. He was director of community services for the Y’s Men, and has been active in Greens Farms Congregational Church as moderator, chairman of deacons and a church school teacher. Bruce also spent 46 years as an auxiliary and special police officer.
He says he is embarrassed to be named grand marshal. Speaking for many others of his generation, he says: “We did what we did. Then we went on with our lives.”
Tomorrow morning, Bruce Allen will lead Westport’s parade reluctantly. He’s been in it before — but only as an Indian Guide, police officer and Y’s Men member.
In recent years, he and Marjorie have brought chairs, and sat near Town Hall. He never imagined he’d be the one that so many paradegoers cheer on, and wave to.
“It’s a great day to honor all those who sacrificed for our country,” he says simply. “It’s a nice day for the town.”
(The Memorial Day parade begins Monday, May 25 at 9 a.m., at Saugatuck Elementary School. It travels up Riverside Avenue, across the Post Road bridge, then turns left on Myrtle Avenue before ending at Town Hall. Memorial services — definitely worth watching — follow immediately on Veterans Green, opposite Town Hall.)
Alert “06880” reader Wendy Crowther sends along a couple of photos from former Westporter Esta Kraft Sands. In the 1950s and ’60s Esta’s parents owned the McLaury House (99 Myrtle Avenue, across from the Westport Historical Society).
Several years ago, Wendy helped restore the house. She also did historical research, and provided website content.
The photo below, from Memorial Day around 1966, shows a marching group — Machamux — as it approaches the house.
I’m not sure whether the Machamux group was a precursor to the Y’s Indian Guides and Princesses that used to meet out at Camp Mahackeno, or whether it was its own dad/son association.
I don’t think the Machamux group would get a passing grade in Westport anymore. The feathers, tom-toms and totem poles were probably not routine gear for Westport’s native Americans. Of course the last of the Connecticut Pequots were massacred by English colonists up in the Southport swamps. And the Bankside Farmers purchased what is now Green’s Farms from the local native tribe who called the same land “Machamux.”
In his 1933 “Greens Farms” book, George Penfield Jennings writes, “On their own responsibility they decided at once, ‘with Yankee knack for a good bargain,’ to purchase the land from the Indians.”
Ah, Yankee ingenuity and a good bargain. It makes me wonder if the “Indians” thought they got a good deal. Whether it was a good deal or a bad one then, I’m sure they’d regret that deal now.
It wouldn’t be all bad to help Westport kids know that Westport once had inhabitants that looked and lived nothing like today’s residents. Today we would be sure to portray the facts accurately and not proliferate stereotypes.
And, circling back to the photos and Memorial Day, Wendy says, “It’s always fun to be reminded that the more things change, the more they remain the same. The parade still marches past those same houses on Memorial Day, and people still line the streets to cheer on their kids or their favorite clubs, politicians and civic groups.”
The photo below shows Esta’s family in front of their home — the McLaury house. Wendy is absolutely right.
I head down to the parade every year because of the old-fashioned, hometown feel of it. It’s one of Westport’s big gatherings. It’s a day to remember our fallen heroes (which many unfortunately tend to forget), and a day to celebrate the start of summer with games and barbecues.
These photos reflect the past, but aren’t too far off from what still happens today. It’s why I love that parade. Hanging out on the sidewalks with people I know, and don’t, and cheering on the passing soccer teams and fire engines, makes me feel proud somehow.
It also makes me feel a little bit like a dork, except that the streets are lined with my homeys, parade dorks like me, clapping for their faves. It’s a great way to express some gratitude and “feel the love,” especially in a town that is so often creating or fighting about change.
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