The real meaning of Memorial Day

Visits to cemeteries and parades honoring the war dead have given way to parties and sales at the mall.

Back when I was a newspaper reporter my editor asked me to write a story about Memorial Day.

“Go and find all the fun events people can attend,” he said.

I frowned. “Fun events? That’s not what Memorial Day is all about.”

He looked confused.

“I know it’s a three-day weekend, which tends to give people license to party their brains out, but remembering those who died fighting for our country just doesn’t lend itself to Jello shots, does it?”

Okay, I probably wasn’t that glib, but he got my point.

“Write what you want,” he said before walking away.

And that’s exactly what I did. The story ran on May 24, 2000, in the West Valley View.

Once upon a time on Memorial Day, proud veterans walked in town parades to the beat of high school marching bands. Red, white, and blue floats made of paper carnations rolled by as Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts marched behind honor guards holding high the American flag.

Now, Memorial Day seems to be nothing more than an excuse for a three-day weekend and a blow-out sale at the mall. Some still do visit graveyards where they place tiny flags by the stones marking the war dead, but they are relatively few and their numbers are rapidly dwindling. You see, the ones who truly hold Memorial Day in their hearts are the ones who were there, the ones who fought alongside the soldiers who did not come home.

I interviewed a number of aging veterans for that story, men who despite their advanced years, recalled vividly those who were left behind.

“I was a foot soldier. Fifty-ninth field hospital. My brother was in the Seventh Armored Division. He chased me and I chased him, but he was killed before I got to him.”

“The pilot of the helicopter was going to lower me down into the water and I leaned out and took a look. Here was these huge fishes going around eating pieces of bodies. Sharks. And you know they couldn’t declare that person dead because they didn’t know if it was one person or two. I thought about it ever since.”

My dad served in World War II, and despite dementia near the end of his life, he always vividly remembered his time in the Navy.

“A buddy of mine…we went all the way through the war right to the end. Just outside of Cheb, Czechoslovakia he got captured and they stuck a pistol in his mouth and pulled the trigger. He was…22.”

I can still see these veterans as they recalled the horrors they could not forget. And, of course, there’s the memory of my own father—a machinist mate on a destroyer escort who helped push the Japanese back during World War II, and was there in Tokyo Bay when the war ended.

“I was standing watch at night,” my dad said. “There were dead pilots lined up on the deck waiting to be buried at sea. They were covered except for their feet, that rocked back and forth as the ship swayed in the waves.”

My dad also told me about the young man who was retrieved from the water badly burned. He asked my father for a cigarette then died in his arms.

My dad was one week shy of his 96th birthday when he died two years ago. He had the beginning stages of dementia and could rarely remember what you told him five minutes ago. And yet, he could talk about his time in the Navy in intricate detail, as if the war was happening now.

“That’s the blood in the red of the flag. The white is peace. The blue was the sky overhead. They gave their blood to have peace under blue skies…that’s the flag.”

I sense that might be the case with most veterans. War indelibly etches their consciousness, visions the rest of us can never quite see.

Go out to the cemetery. Go look at the graves,” one veteran told me. “That’s the blood in the red of the flag. The white is peace. The blue was the sky overhead. They gave their blood to have peace under blue skies…that’s the flag.”

And yet, it was a living veteran who made me think hard about the meaning of Memorial Day.

“There was one darkened room at the end of a long hallway, empty save for a man in a wheelchair. As I moved closer, I realized all his fingers were gone. With difficulty, I glanced at his face. Ears, nose, lips, and hair had all been burned away. His eyes were opaque white marbles. I spoke to him—of what I don’t remember—but he made no response, no movement of any kind. I hoped desperately that his mind had long ago fled to some better place. On Memorial Day we are supposed to remember those who have given their lives for their country. On Memorial Day I think of him.

It makes it kind of hard to go shopping.”

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2 thoughts on “The real meaning of Memorial Day

    • annemontgomeryauthor2013 says:

      Thank you, Sharon. It hits me there too. It’ kind of hard to forget the veterans I spoke with, and, of course, my dad.

      Like

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