Memorial Day and the Travelin’ Soldier

On Friday, my husband and daughter and I were waiting to board a plane for a family trip when an announcement came on the overhead that a group of WWII veterans were there, heading to DC for Memorial Day weekend. Bagpipes began playing, and the terminal aisle cleared. Men removed their hats in respect, and people rose to their feet, some applauding while heroes in wheelchairs rolled past.

Now that we walk around with a portable time capsule in our hands at all times, I felt compelled to snap a photo but after taking this one, decided to stop and be in the present moment. That’s not an easy place to be these days. As a parent, I have to consciously stop myself from experiencing everything from behind the lens of my phone’s camera, and I often catch myself missing a moment because I’m so busy capturing it.

If you’ve ever been in a car accident or driven up on one, there’s an eerie silence that happens afterwards that is almost impossible to explain. It’s as if the moment of impact is automatically followed by a quiet stillness that is the direct opposite of the sound of the crash. As the parade of WWII veterans came through the terminal, I thought of that silence, because while some people were applauding and others stood still, there was a feeling in the space of that kind of quiet stillness.

Those men served their country when they were just kids. To consider what they saw and experienced is impossible for us to comprehend. In a time where it seems to be the norm to spew insults and take the low road, being in a moment where people were gathered to show appreciation and respect was a really powerful thing.

Whenever Memorial Day weekend approaches, I am riddled with internal conflict about how to best honor the holiday. I have a utopian view of the world and would prefer that we exist without war and without conflict. You may say I’m a dreamer, but that’s just how I view things. However, Memorial Day makes me think long and hard about the men and women who served willingly. I also think about those who were drafted, and what in the world that must have felt like to have your number called. My dad was drafted during Vietnam, but his poor vision kept him from serving in combat. I’m so thankful for that, because had he gone, he might not have returned, or he could have returned a very changed man. Memorial Day also raises my internal conflict about how we treat our veterans, and about mental illness, and the trauma our veterans face entering society after serving our country.

During every family road trip without exception, my family listens to the Dixie Chicks version of the song, “Travelin’ Soldier.” We’ve been listening to it for many years, since my stepchildren were little.  We listen to it every Thanksgiving to visit family in Dallas or Tyler. It’s the song request that comes up most when everyone is fighting and we want to just listen to music and quit bickering already. We sing it at the top of our lungs. My daughters take the melody and I jump in with my old high school and church choir harmonies, and my husband and stepson just shout the lyrics. To me, it’s one of the most beautiful sounds in the world.

It’s difficult to articulate how important “Travelin’ Soldier” is to me as a parent. I know the importance of the anti-war anthems of the 60’s, but this song singlehandedly teaches my children such a powerful message: war has consequences. For my kids, they will associate their feelings about war and patriotism with the lyrics to this subtle, yet extremely meaningful song. It’s really big stuff.

In an odd twist of fate, when my youngest daughter entered elementary school 8 years ago, one of her classmates was the daughter of country music artists Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis. The first time I met Bruce it took everything in me not to jump up and down shouting, “You wrote ‘Travelin’ Soldier!’ We sing it every single family road trip!” But I held back. It’s Austin, and we’re so lucky to have so many talented musicians raising families here. Please pardon me while I humble brag, but I’ve had the good fortune of meeting a nice little handful of Austin’s music royalty, and I like to think those people want to feel normal when they’re taking their kids to school. I also figure its best not to tackle a musician in the school hallway with questions about their songs because that’s just weird.

In all of the years I’ve known Bruce and Kelly, I have never been able to dig up the courage to ask Bruce about what was in his head when he wrote “Travelin’ Soldier.” I want to ask him about the writing process, and what inspired him to come up with the imagery of the young girl, tucked under the bleachers, crying when the solider’s name was read. As a writer myself, I can’t imagine creating something so pure and so meaningful. I’m afraid if I got Bruce to open up about the writing process, I would start sobbing, because he wrote a song that means so much to my family. But mainly, I can’t get the courage because Bruce is crazy tall and he still kind of scares me.

So this Memorial Day weekend, I’ll honor the holiday by playing this song for the thousandth time, and think about those brave men we saw pass by in wheelchairs. I dedicate this to the men and women who made it home, and the ones who didn’t.

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