Monday is Memorial Day, and this weekend is the traditional beginning of the summer vacation season. It might be time to open camp for the season, to put in the boat, to have the first barbecue of the year, or (if you are so fortunate) to do all three.
Memorial Day is also, of course, a solemn civic holiday devoted to remembering our soldiers who died in war. It was initiated as a national occasion three years after the end of the Civil War and was then called Decoration Day, after the traditional observance of visiting and decorating soldier cemeteries.
I recall it as a major celebration in Potsdam when I was a child, and memories of the great national struggle of WW II were still fresh in the minds of its veterans, the survivors of the fallen, and the civilians who sacrificed to the war effort. Somewhere I still have a shell casing ejected from one of the M-1 rifles fired in salute over the Raquette River at the end of each year’s parade. Schoolboys like me, fascinated with the uniforms, the guns, and the war stories always scrambled in to get the prized brass.
The holiday may be less well-observed now. I think that’s a natural consequence when today, most people are more distant from the experience of war. Wars such as the Civil War and the two World Wars left few families untouched, and no communities unaffected. The wars of the last few decades have not been as all-absorbing to the nation, except of course to the relatively small percentage of Americans who have fought and died in them, and the families who love and support them. But for most of us, it has been possible to go about our business as usual.
I can’t say that this is a bad thing; who would wish our wars to have been bigger? Yet memory is strongest where you have some skin in the game. Fewer of us may feel that immediacy now. Despite my good fortune in never having to experience war face to face, I try to take a little time to remember the skin and kin of mine who have. My father and his brothers and cousins who all survived WWII somehow, though not unchanged. Or my childhood neighbors, disabled by trench warfare nearly a century ago now. My mother, who cranked out tungsten in a defense plant, or my college classmates still haunted by the jungles of Vietnam.
Who will you be remembering on Monday and why? Let us know in a comment below.