Waiting for the Wreath: Honoring Soldiers Who Gave Their Lives

Last week I decided I needed to get a photograph of the religious leaders and officials of the Town of East Hampton together with uniformed war veterans tossing the Memorial Day wreath into the Atlantic Ocean after the Memorial Day Parade in that town.

It was important to me not just because it might be a nice picture for the magazine, but because I needed such a picture to illustrate a chapter in a book I am writing about the Hamptons. The book will be out next spring in hardcover, published by SUNY Press, and is called In the Hamptons Forever. The chapter is about a day when I made a complete fool of myself.

On that day, many years ago, I drove down to the end of the road to the town beach pavilion and, shifting over to the passenger seat, sat facing the ocean and writing a story for this magazine. I do not recall what I wrote about that day. But it was a complicated piece and it took several hours during which time I was totally absorbed in it. Then, at the most climactic moment in the story, I heard the sounds of a marching band. I looked out the window and saw all these officials in colorful uniforms and then a band walking by my car and down the sand to the beach. At the beach, there was a drum roll and then the band played “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Everyone at the beach at that time stopped what they were doing and stood at attention with their hand over their heart. So I got out of the car and did the same. I had no idea what was going on. But as the song ended, I saw something being thrown into the ocean, then everybody relaxed, and so I got back into the car and back to work. Later, when I got home, I told my wife about it. She informed me it was Memorial Day.

“Oh,” I said.

Well, that was then and this was now. And I never did take a picture of anyone throwing a wreath into the ocean, then or any other time.

“Why don’t you call The East Hampton Star if you need something for the book?” my wife asked when I set down the phone on Saturday afternoon. I had called the Village Police Department to ask them when the parade would be. “They would have such a picture.”

“I want my own picture,” I said. I then told her the parade, which might have been Sunday, was being held on Monday morning, the actual day of Memorial Day. “I want to be down there when they throw the wreath.”

In the morning, the sun rises over the ocean to the east. I could get them facing the sunrise, a bevy of men and women wearing medals, hats, helmets and other official uniforms for the occasion.

We were out late on Sunday night, since Monday was also a holiday, and, as it happened, we woke up at 8:15 on Monday morning. I immediately thought I should call the police. When did they throw the wreath? Before or after the parade?

“The parade starts at ten,” I told my wife. “If it’s before the parade, I better get right down there right away. Want to come?”

“Sure,” she said. My wife is up for anything.

A receptionist at the police station transferred me to a sergeant. I put my hand over the phone while I was on hold.

“I hope I’m not calling them too much,” I said to my wife. “I know they will have the whole force out there directing traffic for the parade.”

The sergeant came on the line. He told me it would be before the parade starts. We would have to move fast.

I did the calculations. It was 8:25 a.m. now. We were still in our nightclothes. It’s 10 minutes from our house to the beach. And at a certain point the police divert traffic to side roads to accommodate the parade. We didn’t want to get caught in that.

“We have to be out of here at 8:45 a.m. at the latest,” I told my wife. “That’s 20 minutes from now.”

“I’ll be ready,” she told me.

Amazingly, we got into the car at 8:45 a.m. and down through town, with all the American flags flapping from their poles along the sidewalks, to the beach at 8:55 a.m. We had brought our dog in the car, and he looked out at the beach and began wagging his tail and jumping around inside the car like crazy. We usually take him out for a run in the mornings there. But not this morning. Dogs are not permitted on the beach after nine from Memorial Day to Labor Day. This would not be his day.

We parked alongside some other cars at the dead end of this road, facing the ocean, the lifeguard stand in front of us, and the beach pavilion off to the right. When the parade came, we’d be ready.

Nine turned to 9:15 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. My wife read The New York Times. I kept looking in the rearview mirror to see if they were coming. They weren’t coming.

It was a cloudy, warm day. We waited. At 9:35 a.m., a group of nine lifeguards in sweatshirts and shorts trotted out onto the beach and began running laps up and down the beach, stopping at each turn to do 10 pushups before continuing on. I grabbed my camera and went out onto the beach and took a shot of this.

At a quarter to 10, they still had not come. I hesitated about calling them again, but finally did. The receptionist told me that she now thought the wreath would be thrown AFTER the parade, at 10:30 a.m. It is a quite short parade, after all.

Lovers came down in their cars and parked, then walked hand-in-hand down to the ocean and kissed. A husband and wife and three kids came down and parked and ran down to the edge of the water. Two old ladies with aluminum lawn chairs came out on the beach and set up side-by-side, facing the ocean.

There were lots of birds swooping and flying around over the beach. It was morning. Surely they were looking for something to eat—bugs in the air, sea life on the sand. We saw eight geese flying one behind the other in a straight line 10 feet above the water, just offshore heading west. Looking for their breakfast, no doubt.

I began to feel bad for my wife. Neither of us had eaten anything. It was now 10 a.m., and she’d long ago finished reading the paper. I looked at the beach pavilion and saw someone coming out of the snack bar with a bag of food in hand.

“How about you go in there and get us something to eat?” I said. “I know they have juice and muffins. Maybe they have eggs, too.”

“You want to get it?” she said.

“Well, I thought it would be nice for you to get out and stretch your legs. You’ve been sitting here all this time. And I still have to wait for the procession.”

She was gone about 10 minutes, then came back carrying bags of food.

“Strangest thing,” she said. “I started walking back to the car and just passing the flagpole when something hit me on my hat. I looked around. It was a dead bird. Flying overhead I saw a hawk. The dead bird, now on the ground, had his insides eaten. The hawk just let him drop.”

“What did you do?” I asked.

“Well, I picked him up and put it in the garbage. Then I told this lifeguard captain about it.”

Out on the beach, many people were now gathering with umbrellas and lawn chairs. They’d come out in their cars to the end of the road, to stop, take out their beach gear and go out there and set up. The driver would go off to the lot. We, of course had been there in a 15-minute parking zone for almost two hours now. But nobody was bothering us.

We ate our breakfast, cantaloupe pieces, bagels and muffins and coffee. It was pleasant in the car.

At 10:30 a.m., a car pulled up and a man in a business suit with a Bluetooth device in his right ear got out. I asked him if he was the start of the ceremony.

“What ceremony?” he asked in a heavy Spanish accent. He knew nothing about it.

At 10:45 a.m., the parade surely had to be over but still there was no sign of anyone with a wreath. I told my wife I had stayed this long and I’d continue to stay, but she should just let me get out of the car and sit under the awning of the pavilion and wait, and then come back for me in an hour.

“Figure noon,” I said. “It should be all over by then.”

So off she went, with the dog, who she told me on her return had enjoyed a walk through town while she, my wife, did some shopping.

I, meanwhile, as I said I would, sat at one of the tables at the beach pavilion. I took out my laptop to write.

I drank coffee and wrote the “Hamptons Subway” column sitting there, thinking things up as I went along. It took the better part of an hour, and just before noon I got a text from my wife that she was heading down Ocean Road and would be there in a few minutes.

So I packed up and walked toward where the cars come in and drop off people and gear to be picked up. There had been no sign of any wreath, ceremony, band or men and women in uniform.

Just before I got to the drop-off place, however, I encountered an older man with an East Hampton Town Beach Pavilion T-shirt and a whistle around his neck carrying what surely was the Memorial Day wreath to remember those who had given their lives for their country.

“Did I miss this?” I asked him. “Did they do this ceremony?”

“It took place just after 9 a.m. this year. They dropped it from an airplane. Dean Foster flew over the surf with it. It’s just washed ashore.”

“Can I take your picture holding it?” I asked.

“Sure.”

I took one picture with him holding it, but it was over the name on the T-shirt. I took another with the wreath leaned up against the base of the flagpole with him standing next to it. When I finished, I asked him his name.

“Francis Mott,” he said.

And then our car pulled up and I got in and we went home.

And that’s the story of how we spent Monday morning of Memorial Day weekend in the Hamptons while all the rest of you were having a wonderful time.

Main Beach dressed for Memorial Day 2014

Main Beach dressed for Memorial Day 2014, Photo: Dan Rattiner

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