There are times when events connect without apparent meaning. That is what happened to me with today being Memorial Day, members of my family making an annual visit to cemeteries where previous generations are buried, and our own Unpresident Trump laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. One of the pictures is of my father at his discharge after WW2. The other picture is my sister Pat, her daughter Amy, and me standing at the gravesite of our maternal grandmother and grandfather, taken during this year’s cemetery excursion.
I read some interesting things about the history of Memorial Day in today’s paper. This holiday began by being called Decoration Day and was begun to honor the Union casualties of the Civil War. Much later it expanded to include veterans from all conflicts, and today it has become a day to have backyard barbeques and to note the beginning of the summer vacation period for a lot of people – not quite the somber meaning originally intended, but perhaps this is partially to the fact that during WW2 about 12% of the population served in the military (that number surprised me and seems a bit low but I have not checked that out yet). Right after the war the focus seemed to be on the veterans who had served and died. As a post war baby I have many memories of Decoration Day parades where the attention was always on the veterans who had served in WW2. The parades that were held in my small home town consisted of children, decorated bicycles, fire trucks, the Tremont High School Band, and groups of returned veterans. The parade was always led by a color guard of local veterans and it seems as though my father was always a part of that ceremony. The parade ended in the cemetery where the names of those veterans who had died during the war were read and remembered. I do not think it was possible during my growing up years to miss the importance or emphasis given to deceased and surviving veterans. Almost every family had a veteran in it or personally knew a neighbor who had served. My father was in the Marines and was involved in the Battle of Leyte Gulf and Mindanao. All of my uncles and uncle in-laws served in various branches of the military. Sadly, I do not recall any of them ever engaging in conversation about their service.
Today the numbers are a little different – less than one percent of the population serves or has served in the military. Fewer families are directly touched by their service and I believe that the meaning of Memorial Day has been a bit diluted. Today it seems that there is an abundance of picnics, new car sales, a rush to the shore for the unofficial first weekend of summer, and a lot of “Happy Memorial Day” greetings that seem to miss the point.
My mother began the Memorial Day tradition of visiting cemeteries where family members were buried, and my sister has faithfully carried on that tradition. In recent years Carol and I have joined Pat and her family on these trips and they have proven to be an important opportunity to share family history through story about people that would otherwise be forgotten by younger sons, daughters, nieces and nephews.
The final and least important thought about Memorial Day this year is the fact that I awoke this morning to news that Orange Donald was laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This seems to me to be sacrilege – how a draft dodging weasel could pretend to honor those who have sacrificed for a greater good when he has no knowledge or experience in personal sacrifice and walks exclusively on the path of personal profit and self-aggrandizement simply astounds me.