Smaller the town, the grander the celebration

“Take up our quarrel with the foe: To you from failing hands we throw / The torch; be yours to hold it high.” These lines are from the poem “In Flanders Fields,” written by Canadian physician Lt. Col. John McCrae in 1915. The poem was part of a two-hour ceremony performed by students from the elementary and high schools in Machias honoring the veterans in our Downeast community.

Having witnessed this moving tribute, I left with a sense of awe while also harboring some embarrassment at having only now, after being here five years, attended this event for the first time. I feel grateful to have been given the opportunity to say thanks to our veterans.

The words in these two lines are eloquent, but they, too, give us our mission in life on behalf of those who served then, serve now and those who serve forever in spirit. That mission is to keep in front of us at all times the bravery, service and devotion to our country the veterans across our nation gave and to continue their effort in defending our liberties and freedom.

My graduating class in Pennsylvania had more than 700 students. Today it is still one of four high schools in the Lehigh Valley and has a student body of 3,000. But here, Downeast, student enrollment runs up to a few hundred, depending on the school. Graduating classes range from several students to upwards of 30 or more. Small? Yes, very small. But the spirit that emanates from the bleachers to the rafters in voice, actions and determination by students and in the work done by teachers is grand.

The preparations made and the cohesive spirit of all the participants exude a palpable sense of family. Large schools, such as my alma mater, no doubt celebrate and thank veterans for their service. I just wonder if I would leave there feeling the same way, given the size of the school and city. I doubt it. There is just something about a small town— everything about it feels special.


The day for veterans started with breakfast served by children. During the meal, more children provided music and sang patriotic songs. Here— especially— is where a special moment can show up at the table. Tiny voices, usually hidden at the back of a classroom, step forward and become big and bold voices shining for this special tribute. Later the colors are presented and a pledge is made. Then seats are taken and speakers speak about old days, ever-thankful for all those who served; names are read, men and women stand; the fallen remembered as “Taps” is played; a poem is read; Marine, Army, Coast Guard, Air Force and Navy spirit marches in song as it all ends, but only for the moment. When all of the pomp and circumstance is over in one school, these veterans will then move in file to another where, again, the bugle will sound amidst the red, white and blue.

The gratitude bestowed upon our veterans is not done on a single day but over many. Other schools provide lunches, assemblies and special guest speakers— all done not by way of calculated synchronicity between the schools, but by just knowing what’s been done before and working together. As one school administrator told me, “It’s just the way we’ve been doing it, and it works.” It takes a tight-knit community to know what others will do.


Here, honoring our veterans is akin to shaking hands, looking someone in the eye, helping a neighbor and giving or getting a nod or a wave. I know this takes place in other parts of the country. Living Downeast and participating in life— which is not a requirement here like in some places— I find there is a hidden joy tucked within these small fragments of goodness. Like those words from the poem, we hold the torch that has been passed to us by all who served, and it is now our responsibility to hold it high, letting its light shine for them and for us.

With the holiday season upon us, the schools— together with a spirited Downeast community— will continue to celebrate with traditions passed down over time.

I can hardly wait because I know, amidst the pageantry of the season when no one is looking, joy will be sprinkled in for good measure— just like it was on Veterans Day.

RJ Heller

About RJ Heller

Having arrived here from Pennsylvania over four years ago, there has been plenty to learn and even more to observe. This place is different, but I mean that in a good way. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, I am a college graduate with a teaching degree, a business founder and seller, and a father of two children with my wife Stephanie; life has been full and somewhat adventurous, but finding Maine remains a high watermark in my life.