Memorial Day in Westport holds some of my fondest memories of youth and my worst as an adult.

Growing up in Westport in the 1950s it was tradition to decorate your bicycle with as many American flags possible (then add more) and weave red, white and blue crepe paper in the spokes, then ride with pride in the Memorial Day parade.

My first was on a bike with 20-inch wheels, then 24-inch and last a 26-inch, which was my first new bike: a Columbia Golden Eagle Deluxe! Like cars of the time it had two-tone paint and dual headlights. As you passed by each block of houses and stores the applause and cheers were loud and intoxicating!

High school and college passed quickly and by the early ’70s I was in the Army National Guard. My first drill was in Westport’s Nike base, where the oath to defend and protect was taken, then to basic training and wearing uniforms.

The unit relocated to Norwalk. We were invited to participate in Westport’s Memorial Day parade! “The times they are a-changing,” couldn’t have rung any truer.

As we marched by the same blocks of houses and stores on the way into town, the crowd was now eerily silent, cheers were now gone. The main sound I heard was our boots hitting the pavement in unison.

At Main Street, the past’s treasured cheers were now loud jeers. One of many signs said, “Stop killing the babies.” Evidently, representing the majority were two brave ladies dressed in black. Locking arms, they marched up alongside and spit in my face. The village that had me nurtured and formed had now turned to scorn. The YMCA, movie theater and malt shop became a Bermuda Triangle where my joyful youth entered, but did not come out that day.

Fellow guardsmen convinced me to attend a picnic at the Norwalk American Legion. “You would only pay for beer and food would be free.” On entering, the large crowd at the bar parted and we were escorted to the front. Reaching for my wallet I was emphatically told, “Your money is no good here, as you are wearing that uniform.”

The next day we soldiers were back in area towns in “civilian” uniforms as bank tellers, policemen, lawyers, carpenters, retailers, etc.

I consider myself very lucky. I had not returned home having served in Southeast Asia. Those veterans often had a far more difficult adjustment.

Please remember to embrace and honor all who took the step forward.

Stephen Owen Simon

Staples High School Class of 1966

Southport, N.C.