I loved the adventure of Memorial Day as a child. We placed flowers on relatives’ graves at our local cemetery and made a day-long pilgrimage to my parents’ childhood communities to decorate more family plots. Flowers were everywhere. We dressed in our new summer clothes, played with cousins we didn’t often see, had picnics and potluck dinners, and heard family stories over our ancestors’ headstones. In our community, Memorial Day was about remembering everyone who had died.
It wasn’t until I was older that I realized that Memorial Day was really about remembering those who served our country. My first brush with the terrible possibilities that might await those in the military came when I was ten. The Cold War was rapidly approaching the boiling point and relations between the US and Russia escalated with the Cuban Missile Crisis, and a nuclear war seemed imminent.
President Kennedy requested a massive increase in military strength and activation of certain reserve troops, including my brother in our local National Guard unit. Our family and his wife, who was expecting their first child, accompanied him to the train station to see him off. As a ten-year-old, I didn’t fully understand the significance of his journey, but my parents had witnessed friends and family leave home in World War II, never to return. The terrible possibilities were altogether too real to them.
My mother and sister-in-law wept, of course. But that day, I saw the tears in my father’s eyes as he bid his eldest son farewell to an uncertain future. I had never seen my dad cry–yet there he was, firm, tall and erect, with tears of anguish glistening in his eyes. Suddenly everything about the situation became clearer. War and soldiers and battles and maybe even death became a reality in my ten-year-old mind.
The tensions between the West and the Eastern Block bubbled and frothed, nearly exploding, but fortunately war was averted before our local guard unit was called to leave Fort Lewis, Washington. My brother came back to us, fit and healthy, and a commissioned officer.
Years later, when another older brother was about to be drafted into the Army during war time [Vietnam], he joined the Marines as a helicopter pilot rather than face the draft. After serving tours of combat duty in Vietnam, he returned home safely to his wife and children.
Meanwhile, new headstones appeared in our cemetery marking the resting places of local boys we knew who were not as lucky as my brothers. I began to appreciate the valor and courage it took for those men and boys to go to another country to fight an unpopular war. These men showed love and respect for their country and its people and honored its draft laws. The red, white, and blue flags placed throughout our hometown cemetery and the monuments paid tribute to those who fought in American wars and now have a deeper meaning.
Today, our local cemetery is serene. On Memorial Day, an abundance of American flags wave on the fence around the perimeter. Still more dot the graves. The flower spectacle is preserved as people pay their respects before they head off to barbecues, picnics, and other family festivities.
I don’t question the respect shown both to fallen soldiers in our community and also showered on others. The soldiers gave their all, but the cemetery also provides a resting place for plain folks who gave them life. All of those life stories have given us the life of freedom we enjoy today.