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Mares: Armistice Day

http://www.vpr.net/audio/programs/56/2012/11/11092012_vpr_mares.mp3

(Host) For Veterans Day, former state legislator and commentator Bill Mares went in search of one thousand missing World War One veterans and found them - in a Burlington basement.

(Mares) Ninety four years ago at the 11 th hour of the 11 th day of the 11 th month of 1918, an armistice was signed for The Great War, the war to end all war, as President Woodrow Wilson optimistically called it. The day came to be known as Armistice Day, and eventually Veterans' Day.

Across the world, survivors confronted the sad task of commemorating the more than9 million dead, including about 116,000 Americans. On a per capita basis, Canada lost 7 times that many troops.

Alone among the great powers, the United States had been through such a mass catharsis of mourning before. More than 600,000 troops north and south had died in our Civil War. Proportionately, this number would equal almost 8 million deaths today. There were Civil War monuments in almost every American village, town and city. Historian Howard Coffin has written, Below the Mason/Dixon line they always face north, never showing a back to the Yankees. Up North, particularly in Vermont, they face any which way, perhaps displaying a casual confidence born of victory.

After World War One only a few Vermont towns put up doughboy statues or lists of veterans and the dead. The rest joined in a national debate to replace traditional static statuary with living memorials.

Some people criticized the mass produced statues as idolatry. And death became something of a social taboo in the Roaring Twenties - a time dedicated to pleasure and the rush to return to what President Harding called normalcy. There was also a generalized distaste for the past. And as the automobile came to dominate city planning, function replaced form and utility supplanted ornament.

There was even disapproval over the waste of devoting material and space to traditional monuments. An English critic wrote: Would not a pleasant, tidy little house in every village bearing on a panel, Memorial Cottage, and other words and names, be the most touching, significant, and beautiful of all possible monuments? The people have asked for houses, and we have given them stones.

The living memorials that were constructed included playgrounds, buildings, highways, bridges, parks, libraries, community centers, and athletic fields. Soldier Field in Chicago, Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia , and civic auditoriums like those in Barre and Burlington are prominent examples of this movement.

Most audience members attending one of the many events held at Burlington's Memorial Auditorium, don't realize that seven bronze plaques in the lobby are inscribed with one thousand names - from A to M - of Burlington veterans who fought or died in World War One.

The remaining plaques, listing 1000 more veterans - with names from N to Z -are stacked like forgotten folding chairs in the basement under the south stairway. Perhaps it's time to put them back on the walls of what was built as a Memorial Auditorium. Whether you call it Armistice Day or Veterans Day, it seems to me that this Sunday would be the perfect day to make that resolution.

Writer Bill Mares of Burlington is also a former teacher and state legislator. His most recent book is a collection of his VPR commentaries, titled "3:14 And Out."
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