On Memorial Day, we specifically honor those servicemen and women who gave what President Lincoln called "the last full measure of devotion" to our country. Living veterans and those currently in uniform are certainly appreciative of your expressions of gratitude, and these are always appropriate when sincere. And yet on this day, our thoughts and memories are given over to those who raised their hand or did not run when their name was called, and who died with our flag on their sleeve.
I can remember Memorial Day parades in Stratham with the marching band, ending at Stratham Hill Park with fitting tributes, but my strongest memories of the day relate to the parades in Exeter. I was fortunate to participate in them as a student, playing the tuba and then reciting the Gettysburg address at the cemetery on Linden Street. I was even more privileged to march in those parades as a representative of the Town during my years on the Board of Selectmen, and the most moving stop on the route was always at Gale Park.
There, at the confluence of Front, Linden, Pine, and Lincoln Streets, is the stately Gale Park, donated to the town a century ago by Alice Hobson Gale in memory of her late father, General Stephen Gale. Like many small towns, Exeter sent its share of sons and daughters to World War I: 300 residents served in the Great War, and ten of them did not return (nine men and one woman). Locals wanted to honor their sacrifice, and asked famed fellow Exonian Daniel Chester French to head up the project. He agreed to do so, and on the Fourth of July, 1922, the Gale Park sculpture was unveiled and dedicated, a scant six weeks after the debut of the Lincoln Memorial sculpture in Washington DC that French also produced. French contributed this NH effort for well below his usual fee.
The statue itself is both majestic and sobering, a mother pointing the way to her son's patriotic duty, yet also watching over him as he braves the bombs and bullets and blood. It is at once martial and human, rooted in the iconography of the time and yet timeless, with French's achingly human faces. The son stands ready, proud, even, but there is a slight hesitation in his carriage. He knows he will not come back. And yet he goes anyway. I'm not sure there's anything braver than that. For the countless thousands who have done that, from Bunker Hill to Baghdad, we offer our gratitude and our solemn promise that their sacrifices must never be in vain.