Elvis, Dixie, the Ladies’ Auxiliary, and Me
Trying to shut off my brain and act like a normal American in Vicksburg, Mississippi
How much mindless pageantry could I take? Our first morning in Vicksburg, I soon found out when we joined a “ladies auxiliary” ceremony in the Military Park. We faced the ruins of a Civil War battleship, spit-shined politicians, and rows of seated women arrayed in white, Old Glories resting on each shoulder.
Flagless, scanning the scattered Ladies Auxiliary of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, George and I took places in the back row. I tried to pass as a normal American, appreciative of our veterans while inside I seethed over how often we sent soldiers into pointless foreign battles. The speakers stood under the skeletal battleship, their speeches kicking off the Auxiliary’s national convention. Just waiting for my chance to interview the National Military Park’s superintendent, I didn’t belong here.
The whole ceremonial shebang piled cliché atop cliché, all of it as hollow and marooned in time as the USS Cairo hovering over us. I felt terrible. Like a heretic stuck in a church service—a familiar feeling—I knew I should shut off my brain and cede the field to the faithful people around me. Listening to the speakers’ endless invocations of the women’s sacrifices, I felt sure wives of war vets endured challenges beyond my comprehension. Their common costumes, shared songs, and flag ceremonies must bond them in comfort.
I hated the bind these pageants put me in. I didn’t want to be the prick who made light of war veterans’ spouses and their hardships. Yet judging by the ages of most attendees, the war most of these wives’ spouses served in was Vietnam. Vietnam. Since America’s interference in that Asian civil war was based on official lies and Cold War panic, it’s hard to reconcile that twelve-year nightmare with tears for America’s virtue or preserving our “freedom” in any way. This pageantry didn’t want us to think about that, only cover the bloody truth with showy patriotism.
George absorbed it all calmly beside me. He interpreted my freak-out as a non-military person’s naïveté. The son of an Army officer who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, he pointed out that I wasn’t a sports fan, either, so I didn’t get exposed to patriotic ceremonies at games. “It’s got a Southern spin to it, too,” he explained, “which you’d know if you ever watched NASCAR. These ceremonies just throw red meat at the audience. They don’t ask for reflection. That’s really how the ceremony dishonors these women, treating them as if they can’t think.”
After this one finally ended, George answered a VFW official’s inquiry by pointing out that the whole concept of a veteran’s “auxiliary” seemed dated. Following recent wars in which women soldiers played crucial roles, how would they and their husbands join or gain support from the future “wives” organization? And where would he, as the son of a three-war vet, find a place to fit in? The official hurried to agree and just as quickly, hurried away.
Maybe I wasn’t up on ballpark-and-racetrack patriotism, but I was already deep into another kind of competition. Our whole experience of Mississippi would set cruel truths against misty myths. Myths had the home advantages on the field.