Miss Grayce rose before the sun Thursday. She had barely slept. She was too excited. • She stepped into crisp white slacks, pulled on a soft navy sweater, then buttoned on a bright red Tommy Hilfiger shirt. She painted her lips the same shade, added sparkly blue eye shadow. Over her dark curls, she pinned her husband's WWII sailor's hat. • At 5 a.m., he drove her downtown.
The four mannequins were still there, standing at attention, dressed in the service uniforms she had rounded up from the town's soldiers. Three patriotic buntings draped the eaves of the dentist's office.
And at the top of the hill, at the intersection of Palm Harbor's two main streets, towered her crowning glory, her tribute to the veterans on Veterans Day: a new 30-foot flagpole.
In a few hours, the townsfolk would arrive, a VFW officer would raise the new flag and the high school choir would sing a song for each branch of service.
"I hope they get it right this time," Miss Grayce said. "When they started out, none of them knew what a caisson was. They kept singing, 'and the croutons go rolling along.' "
• • •
Every town needs a flagpole. (According to Miss Grayce.)
She has lived in the little waterfront village for 51 years. There used to be a flagpole behind the old post office, she said. There's that dinky pole down by the white church.
"But that's not what I'm talking about," Miss Grayce said. "I mean a real flagpole right in the center of town, taller than everything around it, so you can see it from way down at the water."
In February, she made the pitch to her kaffeeklatsch. She has been getting together with the same women for almost 40 years. "I was the one bitching about it, so they told me to do something about it," she said.
• • •
Grayce Lea Merrell, 76, is fiery and feisty, unabashed and affectionate, pushy and tireless. She hugs everyone she knows. She knows everyone.
She was a teenage hostess at the Don Cesar after World War II when she met a young Navy captain. They have been married more than a half-century. "I sure got lucky when I got that sailor," she said.
She's a mother hen who never had children. A restaurant owner who brought in bands when the shrimp boats came to shore.
"Miss Grayce is a wild woman," said fire Chief Jim Angle. "You can't say no to her. I've tried. She just keeps coming back."
When she found out the Fire Department needed money to train its extraction team, she collected donations. And when she saw kids didn't have anywhere to lock their bikes on the Pinellas Trail, she and her cohorts from the kaffeeklatsch agitated for a bike rack.
The flagpole was her idea. But her friends helped. Knocking on doors, asking relatives and co-workers, they raised $3,200.
"All in dollars and dimes," said Miss Grayce. "The largest contribution was a $5 bill."
• • •
She knew where the flagpole had to go: at the crest of the hill, right in front of the old post office. A dentist works out of that building now.
"I had to convince him that this wasn't anything political," said Miss Grayce. "It's just to honor our troops."
She ordered a flag, had molds made for stepping stones: one for the seal of each branch of service. She shipped in a three-story flagpole capped by a golden ball (much prettier than that dinky one down by the church.)
In August, she called the choir director at Palm Harbor University High School. Could his kids sing the service songs for the Veterans Day ceremony?
They didn't know the words. But by Thursday, 80 kids had learned the anthems in four-part harmony. And learned that caissons were carriers for cannons that rolled over hills.
And dales. (What's a dale?)
• • •
The fire chief parked his truck beside the flagpole. The men dressed as historical soldiers took their places by the cannon. Miss Grayce's husband stood in the street, directing traffic.
She ran around in her navy pumps, directing everyone else.
"Isn't this wonderful? Look, everyone is smiling," she kept saying. And when the choir sang the Army song she gave the fire chief a thumb's up. "They didn't say croutons!"
Next came the Navy. Her favorite branch of service. She stood by her husband at the top of the hill, where the new flag flapped above them. "Anchors aweigh, my boys. Anchors aweigh . . ."
Miss Grayce's husband, Harold, is 85. More than 60 years after he fought for his country that song still stirs something in him.
As the music soared, the old sailor bent to his wife and whispered, "Do you have a tissue?"
Lane DeGregory can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8825.