The Memorial Day holiday should be to secularists what Easter is to Christians, the holiest of holies. Instead, it has become a dumping ground for bargain hunters or the starting line for the summer drunk fest.
We have truly lost our way as a nation when the meaning of Memorial Day, to pay homage to those who gave their lives for us, is looked upon as nothing more than the starting gate for summer fun, or a means to increase the bottom line. Oh, our tormented patriotic soul!
But there is still hope for our country if you look to the smaller communities that still celebrate the holiday as it should be, with solemn tributes, flag-waving marches and lots of speeches. Granted, the latter part should be short and very interesting. Afterwards, have the picnics and the family gatherings, but please, just remember why you have the day off.
Memorial Day started simply enough. Barely three years following the end of the American Civil War, it was originally referred to as Decoration Day. Just as its name reveals, families and friends of fallen soldiers would gather to pay homage at the gravesites with flowers and flags. Such practices began even while the conflict continued, but it was Gen. John A Logan through his General Order No. 11 decreeing “30th of May 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.”
More than 5,000 took part in decorating the graves of 20,000 soldiers of both sides of the war at Arlington National Cemetery, Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s former residences prior to the onset of the Civil War. Though many in the North took part in this observance, bitter feelings still permeated south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and people of the former Confederate states chose to have observances from the middle of January (Texas’s Confederate Heroes Day) to the latter part of June.
World War I helped to bind up the festering wounds of what some in the South referred to as the “war of Northern aggression,” but it would be a far greater war 80 years later that finally helped to unify the country once again and help to make Memorial Day a truly national observance.
World War II was to the 20th Century what the Civil War was to the 19th, a defining moment that changed the nation and awakened in it a sense of pride and unity which many today can hardly grasp. This became very apparent during the observance of Memorial Day, especially in the small towns across the country.
I was lucky enough to have spent the first few years of life in a small town in Wisconsin along Lake Michigan, about 27 miles due east of Green Bay. Kewaunee was a town of about 2,500 people in the early 1960s, about the same size today with perhaps 300 more. But it was Memorial Day which stands out in my memory, with nearly every house flying a flag and everyone gathering in the small downtown area to either watch or participate in the parade to the town’s two cemeteries and finally to the Courthouse for speeches and dedications. The “Memorial Program” was usually announced one week prior to the observance in the towns’ two papers, “The Kewaunee Enterprise” and “The Kewaunee Star,” and it was always near the bottom of the article which peaked my interest, “All grade school children are invited to march in the parade, and as in past years each child will be presented with a flag by the American Legion.” In 1962 and 1963, I was finally old enough to take part in the parade, and remember fondly waving the flag to my parents, who stood along the street watching not only me but my two older brothers marching with the Boy Scouts of America.
Lloyd Nimmer, a native of Kewaunee and lifelong member of the American Legion as well as having served 33 years in the United States Army, said the parade is still a major part of the town’s observance.
“We have a 20-minute service at the nursing home and then march to the new high school,” Nimmer said. “The parade will start at the high school and move to the town’s (two) cemeteries, where we will fire three volleys over the most recently buried veteran.”
Born in 1932, Nimmer admits his 75 years have slowed him down, but he has every intention of taking part in what I recall as being one of the most moving tributes a people could offer to those who gave so much.
Here in Tucson, there will be ceremonies at the three major cemeteries following a flyover from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. Our local ceremonies are really moving, but just not the same as seeing an entire town taking part in a very solemn ritual. And the truth is as we lose the veterans of the Greatest Generation, we are also losing a part of ourselves.
It is not too late to rededicate ourselves to an observance that is every bit as poignant, powerful and moving as those held in 20 years of Memorial Days following World War II, especially since so many have fallen in four wars since 1945.
I was reminded of what Memorial Day really means by a simple license plate frame I saw when recently walking through the parking lot of a nursing home. “Home of the free because of the brave,” it read.