At 11 a.m. on 11/11 Dave Logsdon and a dozen other grizzled veterans parked their white “Veterans for Peace” bus by the monumental flagpole. They got out and, after a few words about the state of peace in today’s turbulent world, they brought out the Armistice bell and rang it repeatedly.
“We’re up here respectfully on Dakota land doing our annual bell ringing,” Dave Logsdon explained to me afterward. “Every year since 1991, 33 years we’ve been doing bell ringing in all different places.”
The bell is a tradition to replace the 21-gun salute — “shooting guns, for a lot of veterans, is actually a trigger,” he told me — and for the last three years, the Veterans For Peace chapter has come all the way to the far end of north Minneapolis to gather around the massive flagpole at the apex of Victory Memorial Drive. It’s a place that’s held a very particular peacetime meaning for over a century.
“We settled on this place because it’s a World War I memorial, and it’s spectacular,” said Logsdon, current president of the chapter. “So we’ve incorporated it. There are trees planted all the way down both ways, and they were planted in memory of Hennepin County residents who died in World War I.”
Miles of trees standing at attention
For anyone unfamiliar with the landscape, Victory Memorial Drive is one of the strangest places in Minneapolis. Just over a century old, it’s a block-wide right of way that runs for miles along the border of Minneapolis. A ceremonial boulevard dedicated in 1921 to the more than 500 Hennepin County men who lost their lives, it’s not quite a park, and not quite a parkway, but something in between: a wide open expanse intended to evoke a specific feeling of quietude and reverence.
The uncanny thing about Victory Memorial Drive is the trees. Miles of hackberry trees stand in perfectly straight rows, lining up to present an unnatural spectacle of space. (Originally they were elms, but you likely know the story there.) If you live in the area, you get used to it, because locals swear by the pleasant affect of the place. To me, it seems sublime, strange and beautiful.
For example, Nate Pentz lives on “the Drive” itself, right where it curves around its 90-degree bend. He described to me how his dream was to walk out his front door and onto a park, and that’s almost exactly what he’s found living on Victory Memorial Drive on the North Side of Minneapolis. Along with his dog, he took me on a tour of the local statues, memorials and best spots for dog sniffing.
Pentz explained to me that the rise of the augmented reality game Pokemon Go has greatly boosted the activity on the Drive, but other than the annual “Live on the Drive” events, the stream of joggers, bikers and dog walkers are often overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the space.
As Andy Sturdevant once wrote in his erstwhile MinnPost column, Victory Memorial Drive is a relic of another era, and a landscape full of lost significance. In the 1920s, driving was a leisure activity rather than a necessary slog. Sundays, people piled into motorcars in search of rare paved roads connecting to greenery. When the Drive was first platted, surrounded by nothing by cornfields and a few ambitious street rights-of-way, it likely felt rural.
Post-traumatic moment, and a disquieting pall
World War I was a sharp turning point in U.S. history, coinciding with a sharp rise in nationalism and racism that marked the 20th century. As described in historian Adam Hochschild’s new book, “American Midnight,” the U.S. government used the war as a permission slip to crack down on unions, socialism and anything else deemed foreign or unpatriotic.
The conservative postmaster general refused to deliver any newspapers or mail from supposed political detractors. The Espionage Act was deployed with little oversight to jail dissenters for years. Left-wing organizers were tarred and feathered or worse. Minnesota’s government crackdown, under the auspices of Gov. Joseph Burnquist, was one of the worst in the nation.
Meanwhile, actual news about the conflict was strictly censored. The hundreds of doomed Hennepin County soldiers headed for the fields of France had now idea about what was then a yearslong, brutal conflict. The original significance of Victory Memorial Drive when it was first created must have been wrapped up in this post-traumatic moment, just a few years after the war (and the subsequent fly pandemic) had roiled the nation. To me, this gives any American World War I memorial a different kind of disquieting pall.
Reclaiming the idea of Armistice
One North Side friend with whom I strolled had long assumed the stones embedded in the ground were actual graves, making the space a massive cemetery. It’s an easy assumption to make, as the grass between the trees is punctuated with markers showing the birth and death years of hundreds of soldiers, giving the space a feeling that you’re not supposed to be there. In the summer people occasionally play badminton or throw frisbees around, but 99% of the time the vast expanse of the Drive serves instead as simply open space, offering mostly a visual impression.
For the veterans, though, it’s an ideal location to ponder the American past, one reason why they are critical of the 1954 name change for the national holiday. The men I talked to have for 33 years referred to the holiday as Armistice Day, its original name, celebrating the relief that comes with peace. It’s a trend that, for Veterans For Peace chapters, has spread from Minnesota to other groups around the country.
“We are reclaiming the idea of Armistice,” Veterans for Peace’s Dave Logsdon said. “The idea after WWI was that war really sucks. We want to remember that it really sucks, so that we don’t do this again.”
As the sound of the veterans’ bells and voices disappeared into the crisp November air, winter light cast shadows through the branches and onto the vast grass. Work done for now, the men climbed into the white bus and headed off in search of both pizza and peace.