For 71 years, Bill Tebo was a solemn fixture at area Memorial Day remembrances, saluting and mourning fallen servicemen and women.
With the coronavirus pandemic canceling public ceremonies throughout the Seacoast, the 92-year-old World War II veteran said he finds it “rather upsetting” to know Monday’s holiday will feel and look far different than every other year since he got out of the Navy in 1948.
“It’s quite disappointing of course, but I understand why we must do this,” said Tebo, a Newfields resident and former Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum executive director. “I don’t think I’ve missed a Memorial Day service. I can’t think of one. I’m very disappointed, but I certainly understand.”
That doesn’t mean Memorial Day will go unobserved or be forgotten this year, though.
“The streets will be silent from the drums and the sounds of a hero’s parade, the echoing and the smoke of a rifle of a hero’s salute will await to break the stillness of the air for another day,” said Somersworth Mayor Dana Hilliard. “Yet, our hearts, our prayers, our remembrances on Memorial Day will not be dissipated by a virus which halts us from gathering.”
Area veterans, organizations, municipalities and others say they’re doing what they can to still make Memorial Day a visible occasion in their communities this year, even if public safety precautions preclude parades, beachside salutes and other annual traditions.
“I’ve found myself reflecting on some of the commentary that we’ve been ordered in this crisis, many of us, to simply stay home,” said Rochester Mayor Caroline McCarley. “As I thought about it, it made me reflect on Memorial Day (being about) commemorating those brave men and women who died in service to this country and didn’t get to come back home.”
Tebo plans to observe Memorial Day by flying an American flag at half staff outside his home and by taking a pensive solo trip to a local cemetery to visit his wife’s grave and honor veterans buried there.
Newfields also will have a drive-by salute for each of the town’s veterans, which will also deliver a meal to the veterans to thank them for their sacrifices.
“I think it’s a great way to do it,” said Tebo, who typically attends the ceremony at Portsmouth’s Albacore Park Museum every Memorial Day. “It won’t be the same and we won’t be able to be in a parade together, but at least they’re showing our veterans they’re proud.”
Dover, Durham, Exeter, Portsmouth, Rochester and Somersworth are among the local communities in which there will be virtual ceremonies of some kind to allow residents to collectively observe Memorial Day from the safety of their homes.
“This Memorial Day, our strength in thought, our strength in our heart and soul will stand with the heroes that now rest in silence,” Hilliard said Thursday morning while Dover, Somersworth and Rochester recorded a joint virtual ceremony in Dover. “From our homes, from our virtual spiritual gatherings, from our own personal visits to their resting spots, we will remember, we will honor and we will say, ‘Thank you.’”
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Still, many do worry the lack of large public events could push the importance of Memorial Day to the background, that it could potentially lead more people than ever to consider it simply as a fun three-day weekend.
That’s particularly troubling given a number of older veterans will miss their first ceremonies this year because they’ve died due to the coronavirus, Albacore Park Executive Director Patricia Violette said.
“It’s very difficult and very disheartening because we honor our active duty and retired veterans and those who are final patrol,” said Violette. “It could go either way — yes or no. Our youth needs to understand the importance of honoring those soldiers and veterans, but is the new future going to be all digital? Will it all be through social media, through what we learn online? I don’t know. Everything is unknown right now. It’s a new world.”
Regardless of how COVID-19 changes the world, Violette said she believes in-person ceremonies will be important because they provide “a better understanding than watching a TikTok video or Facebook video.”
“Being there creates more awareness,” said Violette, who will record a virtual wreath-laying ceremony at Albacore Park and post it on the museum’s Facebook page Monday.
In many communities, a single person serves as the custodian of their town’s flag and wreath-laying traditions on both Memorial Day and Veterans Day.
In Dover, that person is Army veteran and Odd Fellow Larry Gadbois. Gadbois and a small team of volunteers placed more than 1,200 flags Wednesday afternoon at Pine Hill Cemetery.
“It’s hard to explain,” Gadbois said while describing the emotional weight of honoring veterans in this way, particularly this year given that it’ll be his only public display due to the pandemic. “When I put these flags out, I kind of hesitate at every grave and give them a little thanks from my own thoughts. It’s something that I’ve done and something I always will do and try to pass it on to the younger generations.”
Gadbois and his volunteers said they don’t believe Memorial Day’s meaning will be lost this year. That’s because on Wednesday, while they laid the flags in Pine Hill, they saw what seemed like more people than ever visiting their family members specifically to honor them in conjunction with Memorial Day.
“It was so beautiful to see people come into the cemetery,” said Maria “Mimi” Parks, a Dover Middle School paraeducator who assisted Gadbois for the first time this year and found the experience moving. “There were a lot of positives there.”
Parks moved to Dover four years ago after living in the Washington D.C. area, where national monuments and museums provided an ever-present reminder of the cost of war.
Parks said she took refuge in public Memorial Day celebrations each year and that before Wednesday she was worried the United States could be “losing a sweet little piece of the holiday this year because of the virus.”
“For me, having had so many family members who participated in those wars, it was hard for me to think this remembrance will be so slight. The flags are a beautiful symbol, and I think it affects everyone on so many different levels,” Parks said, crying. “It’s just so important to remember. The simple things sometimes in life are just so meaningful.”