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An upended Memorial Day still finds ways to honor veterans

Across Eastern Iowa, coronavirus brings low-key holiday

Community members bow their heads in prayer Monday during a Memorial Day ceremony at St. Joseph Cemetery in Earlville. T
Community members bow their heads in prayer Monday during a Memorial Day ceremony at St. Joseph Cemetery in Earlville. The ceremony capped a caravan through town organized by Earlville’s Carpenter-Diesch-White American Legion Post 436. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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The sun was shining. The water, sparkling. Gardens budding. Temperatures rising.

Even with all those late-spring ingredients at the ready, this Memorial Day proved far from the typical transition to summer in Eastern Iowa.

Typically bustling playgrounds were roped off. Picnic shelters sat empty — or were sparsely populated. Campgrounds, while open in some areas, imposed limitations and barred visitors. Iowa’s popular Maquoketa Caves remained shuttered.

Still, Iowans found ways this year to mark Memorial Day despite the coronavirus pandemic that has halted everyday life for months.

A daughter and father arranged a row of flags Monday morning along the road to Lake Macbride. An elderly man wearing American Legion attire took bike ride by himself.

Of course, some people did break more social-distancing norms than they have in weeks — with the governor easing restrictions and reopening many businesses and state park camping with limits. But many did not venture out long — or far — for the holiday.

Earlville improvises

On a typical Memorial Day in Earlville’s Fairview Cemetery, hundreds gather by the flagpole in “ceremony square” and listen to messages on the day’s true meaning. A high school band plays. Community awards go out, like to the Boy Scouts or the fire department.

But this year — with COVID-19 threatening Iowa — those congregate-style commendations had to go. The Earlville American Legion didn’t halt its Memorial Day ceremonies entirely, though.

It got creative, organizing instead a caravan through town — first asking neighbors in the northeast Iowa community of about 800 to dig through their closets and find any meaningful combat boots or veteran memorabilia they had.

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The town call asked inhabitants to decorate the mementos and set them outside their homes or the local cemetery in time for a Monday morning tour. Then outside the Earlville Civic Center, a cluster of about 20 cars, trucks and golf carts began after a starting prayer their slow roll past house after house, where boots stuffed with flowers sat next to flags and baseballs tucked into aged and battered mitts.

“We went down every street, so we had a chance to look at everybody’s display that was out,” said Earlville American Legion Commander Loras Mensen. “Then we ended up at the cemetery right around 11.”

While keeping a distance of between 6 to 8 feet apart, Legion members lined up between flags for the ceremonial three-round volley, a rendition of taps and a closing prayer.

“We used the fence post on the cemetery fence as a guide — they’re like 8 or 10 feet apart,” he said. “And we just lined up and we fired across the cemetery with our three-round volley. And then everybody else that was in the procession, they stayed in their cars.”

Mensen missed the usual Memorial Day festivities. But he also noted the novelty of the town processional and the prospect of making that a new ritual.

“I’m thinking we’re going to push that a little bit and try and make that a tradition to come,” he said.

Toddville’s solo ‘Taps’

Louis Zankowski — the 72-year-old financial officer for the Toddville American Legion Post 674 — had a more solitary alternative Memorial Day, making his rounds to four local cemeteries alone.

The Toddville Legion had planned on a weekend fish fry to raise money for its Memorial Day flags and other yearly activities. Then typically, on the holiday, the community would participate in events across the cemeteries including at Lafayette and Dunkard.

“We normally also go to the small creek in town, which dumps into the Iowa River, and we put a floating leaf on it in remembrance of the sailors,” he said. “But we had to cancel activities because of the 19.”

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Instead, Zankowski — a Vietnam veteran — visited each cemetery and played a recording of taps before returning to his Anamosa home, where he played it for the final time of the day.

“We couldn’t do it because of people getting close to each other,” he said of the would-be events. “So we’re sitting here with an empty Legion hall that, in order to meet the requirements that the state and the county set, we can’t do it at this time.”

Canceling the Memorial Day activities and fundraisers hurt the budget, of course, Zankowski said. But there’s more.

“On the veterans’ side, we look forward to it — because we have a 21-gun salute, and sometimes there’s not a dry eye in the crowd,” he said. “In that vein, it’s quite disappointing. We’re a bunch of older people who get out there — we got our white shirts and pants on and our hats. But it all means something to us.”

Disc golf distancing

The beaches and parking lots around Sugar Bottom Recreational Area adjacent Coralville Lake were mostly bare Monday morning, although Todd Myrvik and a group of friends convened for a Memorial Day round of disc golf.

“Disc golf is the original social distancing,” he said, pointing to a loosely-collected group of friends waiting on their final arrival. “It’s not like we were going to hug each other anyway.”

Myrvik said he isn’t missing too much this Memorial Day — with plans to head home and cook after his morning with the guys. And he noted a West Branch parade for the high school graduates over the weekend was a COVID-19-inspired change he might like to see stick around.

“I thought that was awesome,” he said. “I think that can become a tradition just in itself. Because I don’t have any connections with the school anymore — my kids are grown and graduated. But I sure liked standing in my front yard to watch of all the people walk by and wave.”

‘Heartwarming day’

Nearby, Memorial Day events at the Tiffin and Coralville cemeteries took only a small hit in attendance this year, according to Rex Brandstatter, commander of the Sons of the American Legion in Coralville.

“My estimate was we had about 80 percent turnout compared to years past,” he said, attributing half the drop in attendance to weather — Monday’s forecast predicted rain for many — and half to COVID-19.

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An event at Oak Hill Cemetery featuring remarks from state Sen. Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, boasted about 150 people, Brandstatter said. Those who attended stood apart and took refuge under shade trees as temperatures climbed.

“It made for a heartwarming day,” he said, noting the ceremony included a reading of names of 290 deceased veterans from Coralville or nearby and a playing of taps.

“That really brings out the emotions,” he said. “At that point, you just sit and listen.”

‘Fairly quiet’

Although the warm weather drew people outside Monday, Johnson County sheriff’s Deputy Ryan Montz still characterized it as a “fairly quiet” Memorial Day.

“I would say there’s less traffic on the road today than past Memorial Days,” Montz said. “There’s probably more people out trying to experience the outdoors than usual since other things are closed.”

On patrol, Montz noticed more people out cycling or walking. But the sheriff’s office didn’t respond to any reports of large gatherings or any other issues during the day Monday.

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