Amidst the political turmoil of our time, we are coming up once again to Memorial Day, that mid-year break that has become a mixed bag and mixed signal in our American lives.
With it, we formally — with martial, but also sorrowful, pride — commemorate and memorialize those who fought (and, more pointedly, sacrificed their lives) in our country’s many wars. Our nation was given birth out of a war of independence and has continued from that beginning to fight wars that preserved our freedom, expanded our frontiers, pitted us against ourselves in the Civil War and expanded our roles and responsibilities in the world.
We fought in two world wars, at the end of which we emerged as the world’s greatest power, and a nuclear one. We have fought far-flung wars since then, in Asia, in the Middle East, in response to threats and attacks.
Memorial Day grew out of a Union soldiers’ group’s desire to haves a Decoration Day for the graves of Union soldiers in 1868. For many years, it has been celebrated in towns and cities across the country, in every place where the fallen have been laid to rest, or their sacrifice has been noted in town squares, in parks and cemeteries.
Always, there are parades of soldiers, often in the uniforms of long ago of varying fashion and color, from all branches of our military establishments. There are bands and cars and SUVs and jeeps of dignitaries. And there are beauty queens riding in convertibles and congressmen and senators and retired generals and war heroes with medals.
In the smaller towns across America, there are speeches and ceremonies, picnics and games. Memorial Day in this way also signals the beginning of summer, when school is out and the first football practice seems a long way off. All across America, for reasons that remain somewhat mysterious, mattress and furniture stores and car dealerships hold hugely advertised sales.
Memorial Day is special in Washington, D.C. The national cemetery for the fallen is here, and there is a section of the National Mall that seems reserved solely for the memorializing of the conflicts we fought in. The war memorials vary from the almost forlorn presence of the World War I Memorial, to the splendid, historic, wreathed and fountained World War II Memorial, to the clean sheen of the Vietnam Memorial, to the sculptures of the lone infantry company struggling in the barren Korean landscape.
The World War II, Korean and Vietnam memorials are especially resonant because we are among the survivors. The ceremonies and the landscapes there change a little every year: there is a kind of thinning out always present as the World War II vets dwindle in number, appearing more frail and vulnerable, like ghosts from another time. The Vietnam vets still search for missing comrades, still ride in on roaring motorcycles, but are also now visibly a part of the Baby Boomers, many tanned and tattooed, grizzled, bare-armed, carrying regimental insignias. The Korean War vets remain stuck in between, slightly younger than the Greatest Generation, quite a bit older than the ’Nam vets.
The same things happen all the time: the swaggering marchers, the high school bands, the batons thrown high in the air to catch the light, the memories, the history, the family of man on the Mall, the concerts, the reunions and old stories told over a picnic table. Every year, many go missing, the muster call marked by spots of silence.
This is what happens here: you see a man dressed as George Washington get out of a cab; you see an elderly man with medals, a D-Day veteran, wander among the fountains, being saluted by children; you see the big flags draped on the grass. Once you saw a Vietnam vet, blue jeans, sunglasses, with a striped shirt and a regimental cap, kneel and stare at a name on the wall and touch the name. And suddenly his whole body was shaking.
It was some days and a while ago, on Memorial Day.
But then, if you live here and roam, every day is Memorial Day.