Memorial Day in Rock Rapids, Iowa, circa 1940s-50s

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When I was growing up in my hometown of Rock Rapids, Iowa, a farming community of 2,800 in the northwest corner of the state, Memorial Day was the official start of summer.

We headed off to YMCA camp at Camp Foster on West Okiboji Lake and Boy Scout camp at Lake Shetek in southwestern Minnesota. The less fortunate were trundled off to Bible School at the Methodist Church.

As I remember it, Memorial Day always seemed to be a glorious sunny day and full of action for Rock Rapids. The high school band in black and white uniform would march down Main Street under the baton of the local high school band teacher (in my day, Jim White.) A parade would feature floats carrying our town’s veterans of the First and Second World wars, young men I knew who suddenly were wearing their old uniforms. And there was for many years a veteran of the Spanish American War named Jess Callahan prominently displayed in a convertible. Lots of flags would be flying and the Rex Strait American Legion Post and Veterans of Foreign Wars would be out in force. We never really knew who Rex Strait was, except that he was said to be the first Rock Rapids boy to die in World War I and the post was named after him.

After the parade, we would make our way to our picture post card cemetery, atop a knoll just south of town overlooking the lush green of the trees and the fields along the lazy Rock River.

A local dignitary would give a blazing patriotic speech. A color guard of veterans would move the flags into position and then at the command fire their rifles off toward the river. I remember this was the first time I ever saw a color guard in action, with a sergeant who moved his men with rifles into position with strange “hut, hut, hut” commands.

After the ceremony, everyone would go to the graves of their family and friends and people they knew and look at the flowers that would be sitting in bouquets and little pots by the headstones. The cemetery was and is a beautiful spot and many of us who are natives have parents, friends, and relatives buried here. It is one of the wonderful things that connects us to the town, no matter where we end up.

And so this year I got my annual telephone call from the Flower Village florist in Rock Rapids, reminding me two weeks ahead of Memorial Day about the flowers I always place on the graves of my relatives in the Brugmann plot. I always get a kick out of doing business with Flower Village, because it once was in the Brugmann Drugstore building on Main Street that had housed our family store since l902. It later moved across the street to the building that once housed the Bernstein Department store.

I always ask for the most colorful flowers of the moment and the Flower Village people always put them out on the headstones in the Brugmann plot a couple of days ahead of Memorial Day. Then I call Janice Olsen Friedrichsen in Rock Rapids, a second cousin and my date to the junior high school prom, to remind her to pick them up later and use them at her home.

Ours is an unusual plot, because it holds the graves of my four grandparents, my parents, my aunt and uncle and someday my wife and I. My grandfather C. C.Brugmann and my father C.B.Brugmann spent their entire working lives in Brugmann’s drugstore, which my grandfather started in l902. My father (and my mother Bonnie) came into the store shortly after the depression.

My grandfather A. R. Rice (and his wife Allie) was an eloquent Congregational minister who had parishes throughout Iowa in Waverly, Eldora, Parkersburg,  and Rowan. He retired in Clarion. My aunt Mary was my father’s sister and her husband was her Rock Rapids high school classmate, Clarence Schmidt. He was a veterinarian and a reserve army officer who was called up immediately after Pearl Harbor and ordered to report to Camp Dodge in Des Moines within 48 hours. He did and served in Calcutta, India, as an inspector of meat that was flown over the hump to supply the Chinese forces under Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek.

Through the years, Elmer “Shinny” Sheneberger, the police chief when I was in school, would say to me, “Well, Bruce, you and I have to get along. We’ll be spending lots of time together someday.” I never knew what he meant until one day, visiting the Brugmann plot, I noticed that the Sheneberger family plot was next to ours. Every Memorial Day, Shinny took  pictures in color of the flowers on the Brugmann and Sheneberger family graves and sends them to me. I send them on to my sister Brenda in Phoenix and the families of the three Schmidt boys John in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and Conrad and Robert in Worthington, Minnesota.Well, Shinny died this year and so I won't be getting his annual batch of pictures. But he was right. We will be together for a long, long time.

Every year the rep from our American Legion Post puts a small American flag on the grave of every person buried in the cemetery who served in the Armed Forces. Chip Berg, who was three years ahead of me in school, performs this chore every year. My uncle gets one. And, Chip assures me, I will get one someday. I earned it, I am happy to report, as a cold war veteran in 1958-60, an advanced infantryman at Ft. Carson, Colorado, a survivor of two weeks of winter bivouac in the foothills of the Rockies, and bureau chief in the Korea Bureau of Stars and Stripes, dateline Yongdongpo. I am proud of the flag already. B3, who never forgets how lucky he is to come from the best small town in the country.

P.S. As the years went by, I became more curious about how my uncle Schmitty, as he was known, could leave his three young boys and his veterinary practice in nearby Worthington, Minnesota,  and get to Camp  Dodge so fast and serve throughout the entire war. I asked him lots of questions. How, for example, did he handle his veterinary practice? Simple, he said, “my partner just said let’s split our salaries. You give me half of what you make in the Army and I’ll give you half of what I make in veterinary practice.” And that’s what they did and that’s how the veterinary practice kept going throughout the war. Schmitty returned to a healthy practice, retired in the 1960s, and turned it over to his second son Conrad.

P.S. 1: Confession: I was not drafted. I enlisted in the federal reserve in the summer of 1958, which amounted to the same thing. Two years of active duty, two years of active reserve, and two years of inactive reserve. I did this maneuver so that I could formally say that I beat Elmer Wohlers. Elmer was the local draft board chief who had spent a little time in World War I, "the big one," as he would say. The word around town was that he never got out of Camp Dodge in Des  Moines. He had a bit of black humor about his job and we had a running skirmish for years.

Whenever he would see me on the street in Rock Rapids, he would say, " Bruce, I'm going to get you, I'm going to get you." And I would reply, "No, no, Elmer, you'll never get me."  I think he was particularly annoyed when I escaped his grasp and went off for a year to graduate school at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York City. I would send him cards through the years, from an ATO  fraternity party at the University of Nebraska, or from my hangout bar  in New York City (the West End Bar, across from the Columbia Journalism building.) I would write in effect, but with elegant variations, "Elmer, having a wonderful time. Keep up the good work. Wish you were here." And so I joined the federal reserve and ended up with the initials FR instead of  US on my dog tags that hung around my neck for two years. I was officially FR17507818 and rose from recruit in the 60th infantry at Ft Carson  to E-5 in the Stars and Stripes bureau in Yongdongpo.  But my big accomplishment  was that Elmer didn't get me. I still feel good about beating Elmer at his own game.

P.S. 2: Here's how things work in Rock Rapids.  I mentioned my annual Memorial Day drill in an email note to Rock Rapids alumni of my era. I recounted the Shinny anecdote and placed the Brugmann and Sheneberger plots in the southeastern corner of the cemetery. I promptly got an email note back from Joanne Schubert Vogel (class of '49). She wrote that she had sent my note to her brother Dale Schubert in Rock Rapids (class of '55, who was a halfback when I was a quarterback on the celebrated Rock Rapids Lions football team.) Dale called her and said that I had made an error and that the Brugmann and Sheneberger plots were in the southwestern corner of the cemetery, not in the southeast corner. Amazing.  He was right and I was wrong. Joanne softened the blow by saying she was sure that this was the first error I had ever made.