Letters from a Conservative Farmer — Grassroots Patriotism
The small towns around here in upstate New York often, in a pathetic attempt at boosterism, hang signs from telephone poles on their main streets with such anodyne messages as “Westport-Yoga and Wellness” (I kid you not) with the name of a local business sponsor, but the nearby town of Willsboro, which attracts us with the only useful library in the area, has been hanging impressively different signs for the last three years: photographs of local veterans of our wars from World War I to the present (this year it is planned to include a photo of a Civil War soldier as well as one from the 1898 war with Spain). It is variously known as Hometown Heroes or the Military Banner Project, and so far as I can discover it seems to have begun spontaneously in different places all across the country.
How it began here may be typical. A young man from Willsboro, a Marine veteran now working in Philadelphia, happened to see such banners in a Pennsylvania town and suggested to his mother, Robin Belzile, that she initiate such a project in Willsboro. Mrs. Belzile looked up references to it on the Internet and set to work. While the town authorities were not hostile to the idea, they could see only difficulties and expense. But Mrs. Belzile persisted and eventually, after working out the particulars, persuaded the American Legion to sponsor the program.
This is the way it works: those Willsboro residents who want a photo of a relative displayed give a photo and check for $200 to the Legion, which then pays a printer to make a sign 2½ feet by 5 feet consisting of an enlargement of the photo with his or her name and branch of service. All the town has to do is assign some men with a lift truck to put up 75 banners in May and take them down in September. Sometimes they are damaged and must be replaced, but the cost is small, and Mrs. Belzile held a successful fundraiser last year to collect money for that purpose. The Legion does nothing but accept the checks and pay the printer; it makes no money from the transaction.
Some towns only put up pictures of those currently serving, others honor only those killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, but I like Mrs. Belzile’s ecumenical approach. It is certainly interesting to see men in the uniforms of world War I as well as more recent conflicts, and it gives one a small shock of recognition to see the local names — Sayward, Morgan, Drinkwine, Reynolds, Haskin, Lindsay — turning up so frequently.
Of course, a project like this does not happen in a social vacuum. It is particularly appropriate to Willsboro, because it is a working class town (it had a pulp mill until the 1960s). My town of Westport was a resort town now almost entirely populated by genteel retirees. “Yoga and Wellness” is probably the best it has to offer. Essex, another nearby town, has a substrate of people who mow lawns and drive snowplows and manage the town’s petty affairs, has been taken over in the last 30 years by yuppies. A couple of years ago one asked the Town board not to display so many American flags on the main street in summer but to show some foreign flags.
The Willsboro banners, viewed as one drives along the main street, seem a cheering, homely gesture, and once the process is understood, it seems very simple — but it required the indefatigable persistence of one patriotic woman to bring it to fruition. May we all be blessed with the presence of such citizens! *