We are fast coming up on the celebration of Memorial Day, the long weekend that is a signal and a symbol for so many things in the lives of Americans.
In America, Memorial Day means remembering, an ending and a beginning, gatherings at memorials and cemeteries, at parade routes and in your or someone else’s backyard. It means round-the-clock war movies on Turner Classic Movies. It means that school’s out, summer is starting and baseball is being played at every level and on many fields in heartland America and here, too.
Every town in America has a cemetery where veterans of our too-many wars are memorialized by headstones, angels and dates, and many towns have their parades – big, medium and small – characterized by the family of man, some distant or recent memories of loss and heroism and by the total lack of self-consciousness of the marchers.
Here in Washington, Memorial Day inevitably means a little more, because we have our own wall of remembrance here, still reaching out from mirrored stone at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Here are the battle wreaths and theaters of war at the National World War II Memorial, and here and everywhere are busts of men and generals, and the stark, solemn graves on the expanses of green at Arlington National Cemetery.
Generals will come out, and so will the president, and men old and not-so-old will don uniform and medals and roam the grounds near the fountains of the World War II Memorial, their numbers dwindling, the green and brown jackets worn, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren increasing the multitudes.
This is our national memorial by the pool and the trees, the Korean War platoon still seeming to move uphill with grit, the site of the small World War I Memorial, the picnic lawns and speeches and taps and the current soldiers standing squared away and tall, the newspapers still carrying rumblings of war in far away places.
Memorial Day weekend is not so much about losses as it is about individual sacrifice. With all unbounded respect, we do not celebrate triumphs and victories and defeats here as if wars were won and lost on playing fields. We respect the memory of people who answered a need and call, for hearth and country, and gave up, not willingly, but with fight and courage, their lives, leaving behind the rest of their unlived lives among us all.
We ought to really think and let it wash over us as we watch the parade, all the proceedings and flags and the tanks and jeeps and the muskets and rifles and politicians among us. There are heroes among us, remembered, and men and women just as heroic, protecting our communities, like policemen who do things right and fall in the line of duty, or D.C. Fire Lt. Kevin McRae, who died just after fighting a fire in Shaw.
You’ll see the others marching in tandem from long ago, the thousands dead in valor down to our own centuries. Lincoln presides over all in this corner of the city, looking across the mall and the pool at the thousands of us, visitors and the folks who live here.
And here they come, the drum and the fife, the blue coats and Billy Yanks, marines and airmen and sailors and grunts. And the people will bring what they died for: the families, the kids, the T-shirts, the car keys and pride, their photo IDs and precious phones and the memories, some of them, of men and women they lost.
The 90 somethings will wander with their families at the memorial, the motorcycles and tanned, grizzled faces from Vietnam, leather vests and ponytails, rolling like thunder.
And then, some part of that time, the old pictures will come out, from a scrapbook or a computer file. There will be a different, sweet and dusty parade in the neighborhood, smoke coming from the barbecue. And on Capitol Hill, they will gather for the yearly concert, and then the long summer commences in familiar heat, and beaches and sparklers and hoses beckon, in a time when the need for heroes remains strong.
At the memorials, at night, they are all at rest, remembered.