Right Time, Right Place for Memorial Day Reflections

I went to the National Memorial Parade and got there a little late. So, I missed a few things.

I missed seeing Redskins quarterback and super-celebrity Robert Griffin III, who was honorary grand marshal of the parade and thrilled his fans. One woman said Griffin was the reason she came to the parade. I didn’t see parade grand marshal J.R. Martinez, the motivational speaker and Iraq veteran who was wounded there. I missed television star of “CSI: New York” and movie star of Lieutenant Dan fame in “Forrest Gump” Gary Sinise. I didn’t get to hear former American Idol winner Taylor Hicks belt out one tune.

But I did get to see George Washington, hailing a cab outside the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Who wouldn’t pick him up? A man walking behind me said: “You don’t see that every day.”

Griffin and Lieutenant Dan and Hicks and all those guys got big cheers on Memorial Day. But on Memorial Day, people remember. The people gathered in different places in the city over the long weekend, signaling the beginning of summer, and didn’t forget why, what and who they remembered. They cheered the loudest for the guys driving jeeps from World War II, or waving white-haired and sunny on a cloudy day, the real veterans, and those marching them, the women dressed like red-lipsticked nurses, or the Nam vets hanging from Hueys, and the men and kids dressed up in the red and blues of the Revolutionary War or carrying the banners that identified the next group from just about every engagement, battle or wars fought by members of our armed services. Operation Desert Storm, armed forces in Lebanon, the Civil War, the Korean War, Iraq and Afghanistan and children and youngster came marching at the end of Constitution Avenue bearing giant photographs of soldiers from the wars, fighting or fallen.

Up and down the avenue, you saw visitors, and locals, people from the surrounding conclaves of Maryland and Virginia, tourists from oversees, young parents with their baby-carrying carriages, the hot dogs, the dads, the kids on top of shoulders and the little dark-haired girl waving a flag at every group and everybody from the sidelines.

They heard all the anthems, the John Philip Sousa songs, the over-theres—and those caissons keep rolling our eyes have seen the glory—off we go into the wild blue yonder—from the halls of Montezuma—anchors aweigh—and heard the cadence of the three striper marching alongside the company of men marching to a different tune: “your left, your left, your right, your left”.

People will tell you that the marines, the army guys, the sailors, the flyers, the artillerymen, the slogging infantry, the musket holders and cavalry men fought for this thing and that thing and that cause and that reason, for freedom and liberty and the union, and that this would never happen again and always would. This is true, but other things are, too. I’ve never fired a shot in anger although I’ve worn the uniform for three years. A British poet thought he had it summed up: “Theirs [is] not to reason why, theirs [is] but to do or die.”

Maybe. I think they fought and died for country which means among many things all those people gathered on the avenue cheering them as they, or facsimiles thereof, marched by beaming among the flags, the heavy armored vehicle tires, the martial sounds and looked at pretty faces and beautiful faces of families. Wars are about neighborhoods and towns as much as reasons—or, rather, they’re the reason. They fought next to each other, for unit and home and country as well as what they believed in and dreamed about.

What I saw was a guy from Lebanon—isn’t that in Ohio, somebody asked and it is, but not that one—who raised his sons here in Maryland but still had family in that country whose capital Beirut was once called the Paris of the Middle East, and which is squarely within sounds of guns and rockets flying overhead or next door. I saw a man with a flag in his hat, and couples clutching each other, watching the marchers intently.

They cheered the bands from everywhere here and out there, the tubas shining without sunlight, the cheerleaders and twirlers, the baton throwers and drummers and the boys in the big hats from places American: kids from Beaverton, Oregon; Hillsborough, North Carolina; Schenectady, New York; Bayonne, New Jersey; Cache, Oklahoma; Ford Wayne, Indiana; Farmington, Missouri; Huntsville, Alabama; and Hope, Arkansas, where Bill Clinton grew up more or less.

They commemorated the 70th anniversary of World War II, the 60th anniversary of the Korean War and the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. Tattooed riders with white beards roared by, rolling thunderously.

A high school kid heard a high school band tune up to “Louie, Louie” and asked if that was an army song. I said, “Nope, that was a high school song. A rock and roll song.”

I didn’t see J.R., Gary, RG III or Taylor.

But resting at the World War II Memorial, I saw a man in a black jacket walking lightly with a cane, his white hair visible from a distance. I met Herman Zeitchik, the 89-year-old Army veteran who had landed on Utah Beach on D-Day and went all the way up France and Luxembourg and Belgium in the Ardennes Forest during the Battle of the Bulge and into Germany and came out the other side at the end of World War II.

He told stories: “I was in Patton’s army, artillery, and I was at the Bulge in the Huertgen Forest.” Somebody talked about the German 88s, a fearsome artillery that bludgeoned American GIs. “Don’t mention that number to me,” he said. He was clear eyed. “I’m Jewish, but we couldn’t be identified as such, in case we got captured by our dog tags.” He showed us his dog tags. Zeitchik helped to liberate a concentration camp at the end. He recently was at the Holocaust Commemoration at the Holocaust Museum. He was awarded the Chevalier French Legion of Honor. “In France, and in Belgium and Luxembourg, they just treated us like kings and heroes.” He described General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., the son of the American president, marching visibly on the beach at Utah. “People thought he would get killed,” he said. Roosevelt died of a heart attack, later in the war.

He wore his medals, his rifleman badge, his hat, he looked not like a survivor but like someone who had done honorable service in the greatest of all the wars. Now, he was telling stories and answering questions and shaking hands with another army man who had served in Cairo during the war.

They were making memories on Memorial Day, all the things worth remembering and keeping alive and passing on. Beyond “Louie, Louie.” We gotta go.

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