In my Grandma's time, according to the stories she told me when I was a little girl, Memorial Day was called Decoration Day. It was a day in late May when the weather was usually fine--a welcome happy contrast to a long winter, and a harbinger of the end of school and the coming summer vacation. She and her classmates at the one-room wooden schoolhouse would walk with their teacher down the dirt road from the school to the nearby small settlement cemetery to clean and "decorate" the graves of the dead with ribbons, flowers, and flags. It was an annual lesson in civic responsibility and duty; a chance for even the smallest child to contribute to the public life of her community. It was a time set aside to show respect, especially for the veterans of America's past wars, and most especially for those patriotic and brave men who had made the ultimate sacrifice to help keep our country free.
Children can only begin to understand this at such a young age, but it is never too early to start telling them the stories.
This was what Decoration Day looked like across America in 1906, the year my grandmother was born. The majority of the "Old Soldiers" at that time who were looked up to and revered by all were the aging veterans of the Civil War that had ended over 40 years earlier. It was they (and their wives, in the auxiliaries) who organized and ran the G.A.R. ("Grand Army of the Republic"), with their lodges, or "posts," across the U.S. that sponsored patriotic events and support and honorary services for living and dead veterans. Knowing well what they had undergone, and knowing all too well the good men who had died, they took this mission to remember seriously.
Meanwhile, the newest veterans in 1906 were those like Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders, who had fought in the brief but explosive Spanish-American War; or they were the U.S. Army soldiers who had been sent to the other side of the world to help put down the Boxer Rebellion in China; or they were the men who returned home from hand-to-hand jungle combat with machete-wielding insurgents in the malarial jungles of the Philippines.
All these American veterans had performed their duties when their country called upon them. And, as the 1906 Decoration Day program reads, "All residents are kindly requested to furnish flowers for the occasion.... All veterans and honorably discharged soldiers are invited to participate in all our services, together with the general public."
What a small token it seems, as a private citizen, to be called upon to furnish flowers, when others among us had answered the call and left our neighborhoods to furnish their lives. What a fitting tribute it seems to teach even the youngest children to take the time and make a point to honor our veterans.
When I was a child, my parents were survivors of World War II, the Big One, still much talked about in the aftermath. There were War Memorial buildings, statues, and plaques listing the fallen, and Hollywood movies and popular music about that war still playing everywhere. My uncle, a former Air Force pilot, was a veteran of the Korean War; he looked dashing in his uniform in old photos, and certainly didn't tell me any nitty-gritty stories of the war. I did not really understand what any of the many living veterans of my society had gone through, but I was taught to be appreciative of their service on my behalf. In those days there were Memorial Day parades and the Stars and Stripes would fly outside our house for a day. There were also picnics and barbecues, family gatherings, deviled eggs, hot dogs, orange soda--those were the things a kid would remember most. Life in America was sweet and good when war was over and peace reigned at home. That much I understood. It was a day of thanksgiving and festivity to celebrate what our veterans had won for us.
When I was in high school and college the Vietnam War raged and so did the protests. Some of our returning veterans were spat on and called "baby killers" by the nastiest hippies and radicals, the kind you'd see screaming on TV at college sit-ins and draft-card burnings. Draft dodgers and anarchists held the nation's microphones. John Wayne, former WWII hero-icon, along with most of the older generation became jokes for the values they represented, just by virtue of being over 30, it seemed. The nation was polarized then, too. The Green Berets, the flag, patriotism itself were scoffed at. Jane Fonda became an icon of "bravery," while the truly brave U.S. soldiers and sailors were abandoned of deserved support and respect.
As a young person in the midst of what happened then, I had no real historical perspective at all. How could I? Everything that was happening then was happening for the first time for me, and I could not tell how common, usual, or uncommon and unusual anything was. I tended to believe what the media said in those days because I heard no other consistent or persistent voice telling me "that's the way it is" on a daily basis. But even now, I can't answer the question of how the minority of those who hated and dishonored our country and its veterans assumed such a priority over the larger "silent majority" of Americans who knew better.
You would think such a turn of events would inflame the American public who had long understood how to honor our soldiers for their service. But hippies and radicals were steering the zeitgeist as portrayed in the media in those days. And the "silent majority" seemed to give up the conversation without much of a fight.
But this will not happen today. Thanks to such people as the late Jerry Falwell who gave a name and energy to rediscovering the voice of the Silent Majority, our American soldiers and sailors will not be abandoned to the minority of haters and scoffers without a fight again. Such people are still among us--those who do not like the sight of the waving Stars and Stripes. Let them have their opinions, observe what they will. But I for one, will not be silent, lazy, demoralized, inarticulate, or intimidated this time.
The older, over-30 majority like me won't let it happen again. We won't let Decoration Day go by without honoring our veterans, and remembering the sacrifices--the long list of sacrifices through our exceptional country's history--of such truly heroic men and women. From the Revolutionary War to the current war against the jihadis, our veterans collectively, past and present, deserve our active thanks, respect and honor 365 days a year. It is a small price to pay, but I have learned the hard way through the past decades that it is so utterly necessary to pay it. We owe it to them to fly our flags, participate, speak up, remember, and teach our children.
As for me and my house, we will furnish flowers.
Appropriate viewing anytime, but this weekend especially: Band of Brothers
Labels: Memorial Day