Back briefly in Brooklyn for a business matter, I took the chance to attend the Memorial Day service in our local park. It was a pleasant surprise.
A few years ago, only a dozen old-timers bothered to show up. This year there were more like 100 people, including police officers and firefighters as well as some veterans, but not (as far as I could see) any current members of the armed forces.
Many children were there too, dutifully waving flags provided by the Court Street Merchants Association rather than racing around the monument on their scooters, oblivious to its purpose. Ceremony organizer Joanie D’Amico, owner of a local coffee shop, specifically thanked parents for bringing their kids, and urged them to teach their children that Memorial Day means much more than department store discounts and trips to the beach.
No such reminder would be needed in Dubois, at least not in the lifetimes of today’s children. Its people may have always understood military sacrifice in a meaningful way. But 7 years ago, they gained national prominence for the way they paid homage to a local son fallen in Iraq.
In the 2009 HBO movie Taking Chance, Kevin Bacon portrayed Lt. Col. Michael Strobl, who volunteered to accompany the body of 19-year-old Marine private Phelps Chance, returning to Dubois for his funeral. Phelps was killed on Good Friday, 2004, in Ramadi, Iraq, while manning a machine gun.
The movie recounts Strobl’s journey to Dubois, ending with the funeral and the subsequent reception at the VFW post. Strobl himself described this all in detail in a post on the website of the San Francisco Chronicle.
“I wondered how many people would be at this funeral if it were in, say, Detroit or Los Angeles,” he wrote. “Probably not as many as were here in little Dubois, Wyo.”
Sure enough, on Monday there seemed to be about as many people attending Memorial Day services in little Dubois (population less than 1,000) as in our part of Brooklyn (population about 44,000).
Chance Phelps must have been on everyone’s mind: He’s buried in that cemetery.
Among those present were numerous local veterans (some of whom offered the rifle salute), members of a motorcycle club who travel to Dubois every year specifically for this ceremony, and a woman named Shanna Muegge, 31, who currently serves in the Colorado National Guard.
Ironically, the movie Taking Chance wasn’t actually filmed in Dubois. I’ve heard it said that this was partly because people didn’t want to risk disrespecting the Phelps family in any way.
But the film, and the publicity that followed it, certainly honored the actual town. A man called Thomas Stout, who attended the funeral, described in detail the respect for Phelps and his ultimate sacrifice that he perceived in the people of Dubois, even in the adolescent girls who watched the funeral parade soberly rather than opening up their cellphones.
In a letter to the Dubois Frontier, he described what he saw in Dubois as “patriotism, independence, a belief in progress through hard work, community spirit, and a bond between neighbors”–the embodiment of an “Americana” he had always revered but never before witnessed.
“It is such a wonderfully powerful thing to believe in,” he added. “It was a strong enough belief for me to want to dedicate my life protecting it. Unfortunately, never did I see it until last weekend.”
“Thank you Dubois,” he concluded. “Thank you for confirming to me that Americana really exists.”
© Lois Wingerson, 2016. Thanks to Darlene Wimmer for permission to use her images from Dubois.
Want to learn more about Dubois? Follow this blog by signing up at the top of the right column.