By Pam Hersh
“Are you for real?”
That was my reaction to a young woman shopping on Palmer Square on Saturday, when she asked me, “Why the parade today?” and “What’s with all the flags?” She was referring to the just completed “Spirit of Princeton Memorial Day Parade” and the bag of mini American flags I was lugging from the parade site.
The parade, however, was real, as were the sentiments of the parade’s military participants, who understood the real sacrifices made by those fighting on behalf of all Americans. Also qualifying in the heartfelt and real category were the comments of the keynote speaker Eugene Marsh, as well as the remarks from the parade organizers, who honored Ray Wadsworth, the co-founder of “The Spirit of Princeton” organization and spirited advocate/organizer of the Memorial Day Parade.
Ray died on May 31, 2018, just days after last year’s parade. The weather was perfect for the 2019 parade, so I knew Ray, who said prayers every year for good parade weather, was hovering over the proceedings – in spirit, rather than reality.
The parade was, for me, the perfect potion for curing my surreal funk that was articulated by a commentary in Axios, the online political news source. I read the May 25 edition of Axios, as I was putting on my red, white and blue in preparation for participating in the parade.
The Axios article welcomed readers to “our sad, new distorted reality – the explosion of fake: fake videos, fake people on Facebook, and daily cries of ‘fake news.’”
“This week, we reached a peak fake, with Facebook saying it had deleted 2.2 billion fake accounts in three months … a fake video of Speaker Pelosi going viral … and (President) Trump going on a fresh ‘fake news’ tear…. A Pew survey last year found that two-thirds of tweeted links to popular websites came from non-human users (bots or other automated accounts) … a small taste of our unfiltered future. It’s only going to get easier to generate fake audio, fake videos and even fake people — and to spread them instantly and virally…. Fake influence has become the result of an internet that’s filled with fake measurement. The inevitable result of a fake information universe is a real crisis manufactured by fake news.”
Walking to the parade start site on Princeton Avenue, I felt real despair over the war of fake versus real in our lives. The parade began, however, and my angst diminished. Computer bots never could reproduce the goose bump-inducing live bagpiper music, nor could they convey the joyful grins of the kids waving their flags and the soulful expressions on the faces of the veterans of wars who feel honored to have served their country.
This year’s keynote speaker, Mercer County business entrepreneur Eugene Marsh, a founder of Construction Project Management Services, articulated the important reality of celebrating Memorial Day. Instead of focusing on his extremely compelling personal story of surviving poverty, racism and homelessness, he instead talked about the meaning of Memorial Day and issued a call to action for defeating the real problems facing the nation’s veterans.
“In 1969, I served a tour of duty in the Vietnam War as a combat soldier. I was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division, 2/17 Calvary Unit. As I stand here today, before you, my memories of the 63 deceased Vietnam Veterans (from my unit) who were killed in the Vietnam War never will be forgotten or erased from my memory for their bravery and sacrifice as we stood shoulder to shoulder in combat. Our service members are serving locally, nationally and internationally. They are called to be part of something bigger than themselves. They are ordinary people who responded in extraordinary ways…. They rose to the nation’s call, because they wanted to protect a nation.
“Today, many of our men and women are returning home after facing challenges and obstacles that have become a national topic within our communities. The critical issues facing veterans and military families are: suicide, post-traumatic stress disorder, trauma, substance abuse, unemployment and homelessness….”
Marsh, 69 and with a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling, has embraced his next career as a “mental health counselor to veterans who are experiencing challenges and obstacles once they return home. I want to help them reintegrate into society and become productive citizens.”
Marsh’s personal journey has provided real-life preparation for his counseling career. Raised by a foster parent in South Carolina, he grew up poor and in the midst of Jim Crow-era segregation – i.e., separate public bathrooms, separate water fountains, separate dining and hotel accommodations – and because he was among the first group of African Americans to integrate an all-white high school, he suffered the additional racist indignities of a cross burning on his family’s lawn, as well as being the object of “N word” name calling attacks.
To escape poverty and the racism, he enlisted in the US Army upon graduating from high school. Returning home from the unpopular Vietnam War, he struggled to find employment and became homeless for three years. Marsh’s job as a power company relay technician led to jobs in construction that led him to New Jersey, where he focused on education.
In 2004, he returned to school after more than 40 years and earned an associate’s degree in architecture at Mercer County Community College. He, then, enrolled in Rider’s College of Continuing Studies in 2010 and graduated with a degree in liberal studies in 2014. Always pushing himself forward, Marsh received his master’s degree from Rider University in 2018.
I asked Marsh what words of wisdom he would like to convey to others on the occasion of Memorial Day 2019. He responded – unaware of my anxiety over real versus ‘fake’ – that people need to “get real, take off the blinders about the problems in this country and take to heart the words of Colin Powell” – words he quoted at the beginning of his speech.
“‘Memorial Day is our nation’s solemn reminder that freedom is never free. It is a moment of collective reflection on the noble sacrifices of those who gave the last measure of devotion in the service of our ideals and in the defense of our nation.’”
The Spirit of Princeton, a charitable nonprofit group of local residents, is dedicated to bringing the community together through a variety of civic events, including the Memorial Day Parade, Flag Day Ceremony and the Veterans’ Day Ceremony. Donations to Spirit of Princeton are encouraged to ensure the future of these events. See the website for information on how you can “Get into the Spirit” by donating.
For further information about the parade or any of the associated activities, call 609-430-0144 or visit spiritofprinceton.org.