Veterans Day on the South Common

The South Common did not host a Veterans Day event yesterday, but I was thinking about Veterans Day while walking my Boston Terrier just before suppertime. The sky in the west was filled with upswept periwinkle clouds trimmed in coral pink below. In the past few days the trees reached peak color—big bushy light gold crowns on many, and a few on the north rim of the bowl near Summer Street showing bold coppery red on the green slope. The yellow and gold trees function like torches all day brightening the park. Some trees are already bare. Poet Charles Simic has a poem in which he describes stark branching as “bronchial.” From a distance the skirts of fallen leaves spread under their sources resemble the color of pencil shavings.

We have a yard-long panorama photograph in the front hall of our house across from the Common. On April 19, 1919, George H. Russell, manager of the Commercial Photo Shop of Lowell, captured in his trendy format hundreds of people gathered on the Common, on the side that slopes up to the Eliot Church, which, along with houses on Summer Street, made it into the picture. In reverse on a dark tree limb, Russell inscribed: “Lowell’s Welcome to her 26D Boys.” Back from the trenches of Europe, the soldiers assembled for the document. In the shot are nurses and nuns in white uniforms and habits, Knights of Columbus, French flags, kids in doughboy outfits, black-suited city leaders in bowler hats, women wearing their Sunday best, and officers in General Pershing campaign hats.

In his shop on Jackson Street,  Lowell Gallery-owner Guy Lefebvre has other vintage images of troops on the South Common, drilling and parading. There’s one view of a group in ranks on the lawn at the corner of Highland and Thorndike streets with the turreted City Jail, now Keith Academy residences, in the background.

For those of us who are not Veterans, we can reflect on what the day means but cannot get inside the mind of a living veteran. It’s not quite a holiday in the name of peace, but it is something like that because battles and wars are interruptions of times of peace and in the noblest sense are meant to restore peace by stopping aggression. We’re in an odd period now with a patchy peace that spares some of us while others of us are in grinding fights or on guard to keep the lid on a trouble spot. There’s a new book out that claims our era is one of declining mass violence even if it doesn’t feel that way. On the South Common children scrambled around the playground. A boy passed a football to his mom. Dog-walkers enjoyed the late day sun. Two people jogged on the track on the floor of the park. Construction vehicles stood silent after a day of optimistic sidewalk building on Thorndike opposite the closed furniture store near the train station.