Monday is Memorial Day. Pragmatically, this translates into a three day weekend, a four day work week, and the onset of trips to the beach. But where did it come from? I know it is a day of gravitas to honor and remember those who have died fighting for their country, but I had no clue as to its genesis.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, during the Civil War, women in the South, commenced a tradition of placing flowers on the graves of soldiers who had died for the Confederancy. Three years after the war ended, the Grand Army Republic, an organization composed of war veterans, proclaimed that May 30 would be the “official” date that the nation would honor soldiers who had died in the Civil War by decorating their graves with flowers. And so commencing in 1868, there has been a Decoration Day celebration at the end of May. (It was believed flowers would be in bloom all over the country.)
But it did not become a federally recognized national holiday until 1971. This was at the height of the Vietnam War while Nixon was in office, and rather than May 30, it was codified that the last Monday in the month of May would be the nation’s day to pay homage to those who had fought for their country.
There are still American soldiers overseas in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the discussion of what to do about Syria is endless. There will always be debates about whether America should enter a conflict that does not directly impact the safety of our country. Personal, political and religious beliefs dictate one’s philosophy on the subject of war. However, honoring those who have, or had, a job that takes them to the front and back lines of armed conflict is not debatable. I raise a toast to them.
And, to the men and women who were members of the United States Armed Forces and died in its service, in my heart I place a flower on their graves, along with a wish for no more graves. May everyone return safely home.
By FRANK TERRANELLA
I always have mixed emotions about Memorial Day. When I was a kid, my town had a Memorial Day parade, and Little League baseball players, like me, always marched in it with our uniforms. We would gather in a parking lot, and the ancient World War I veterans would congregate with the middle-aged World War II and Korean War vets. Then the World War I vets would get to ride on a float while the rest would walk.
My father, who was a World War II veteran, never marched. Like many guys who saw things that no one should ever have to see, he came back from the war with only one thought – to forget he was ever in the army. He instilled in me a hatred of war, and a distrust of things military that survives to this day. And yet, I was enthralled by the smiling veterans on Memorial Day. These paunchy patriots were the guys who saved the world from fascism. I remember that some of the old veterans were so overweight by this time that I thought they were called doughboys because they looked like the Pillsbury character.
Like most boys, I had seen lots of war movies and the idea that these guys had fought for the country was a romantic one. Seeing that I was a little bit too much in awe of my Uncle Angelo, who was a World War I veteran, my grandfather was quick to point out,
“He never saw combat. He was a cook at Fort Dix. He never left New Jersey.”
I should mention that neither of my grandfathers served in World War I. They were both extremely good businessmen who managed to work the system and get out of the draft. I think there was also a pragmatic reason I was interested in these veterans and their stories. At the time, there was another war going on. And a draft that was just waiting for me to turn 18 so it could snatch me up into the army. So my interest was not purely academic. I really wondered what life in the army was like, and whether I would survive it like my father, and have psychic scars for the rest of my life, or would I try to work the system like my grandfathers? Or perhaps I could swing a safe job like my Uncle Angelo.
These were the thoughts going through my young brain as I watched the flags and the guns and the military vehicles roll through the streets of my town on Memorial Day in 1965. “Freedom is Not Free,” and “Thank a Veteran Today,” the banners read. And as I grew older, and the draft was abolished, I was very thankful that it was them rather than me who had to do the dirty work of defending the country.
So every Memorial Day I would seek out the veterans who sold poppies in public places to benefit those who had been braver than me. Every Memorial Day I flew the American flag that was draped over my father’s casket when he died. And every year attending Memorial Day festivities would choke me up when the bugler played, “Taps.”
My father instilled in me the idea that war is hell. But I also think it’s often unavoidable. So it’s important to take one day a year and honor those who have served, and especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. That’s why I will be in the cemetery on Memorial Day weekend paying my respect to the veterans in my family rather than heading for the beach.