We went in and right back out of our favorite main-drag restaurant yesterday, where people were backed up to the door. Today there wasn’t a parking place to be had around another eating place, and we were forced to settle for a second choice. Mass at church was packed, and lines were forming at the gas stations.
It’s Memorial Day weekend, the official start of tourist season, and visitors are making their mad dashes up here to Door County, Wis., frantically trying to suck as much fun as they can out of this three-day holiday. It’s that time of year when we locals, the regulars, who have our favorite booths and our favorite waitresses, are elbowed aside by the invading strangers with the deep pockets who enrich our coffers that sustain us in the winter months.
Now and then, on Facebook or in a newspaper cartoon, someone tries feebly to remind us that we’re missing the point; that the Memorial Day holiday isn’t about boat rides and picnics, ball games and the return of the tourists.
Memorial Day is about stopping our usual activities, fun or not, and remembering those who stepped in the breach for the rest of us. More and more, it seems, it’s not happening.
I think we’ve become almost impatient with those drawings of
flag-draped tombstones, or sad-faced soldiers holding the guns we abhor–the soldiers and the guns who have fought our wars for us and won the freedom we’re so feverishly enjoying.
I lived in the days when the remembering was blatant; when, as kids, we wove red-white-and-blue crepe paper into our bicycle spokes and rode in the parades that featured floats and bands and military units. Radio programs told stories of Medal of Honor winners; we wrote essays about patriotism in school. Every town had a Memorial Day program with flags and honor guards and special speakers.
As a young mother, I took my kids to the Memorial Day programs in Two Harbors, Minn. Later, as they got older, I went with my mother, the woman who once did a man’s job in a factory making piston rings for air planes after the men had marched off to war. I listened to the city band play marches and patriotic hymns, followed by the American Legion’s presentation of the colors, with all of us saluting or holding our hands over our hearts. Bouquets of flowers were given to the Gold Star Mothers who had lost sons in combat, and someone military usually gave a speech. Once it was my own pastor, a priest who was also a chaplain for the Air National Guard unit based in Duluth.
A parade of soldiers, dignitaries and ordinary participants followed all the oratory, stopping at the war memorial in front of the courthouse where flowers were placed, and then down to the waterfront, where a wreath was tossed onto the waters. Then on to the cemetery, where rows of tiny flags fluttered in the breeze, marking the graves of those who once served.
Every year, the crowd who attended grew smaller and older, and I had to wonder, where are the young people? Why aren’t the young families teaching their children the way I was taught? They enjoy the same freedoms we’ve always had; why aren’t they expressing the same kind of gratitude?
Far too many of us have become uncomfortable with the idea that fighting for country is sometimes necessary. We’ve grown so used to seeing politicians use war as a self-serving tool that we’ve disallowed the notion of “just war” and deemed patriotism to be politically incorrect, or have come to view it as naive emotionalism at best. Somehow, we’ve become afraid that honoring those who have served means honoring war, but of course that’s not true. Just or not, necessary or not, wars get declared and freedoms are threatened and someone has to step forward when leaders, rightly or wrongly, have turned push into shove.
It’s those people we honor, those who have fought and died, or who have fought and come home changed and often unwilling to talk about what they saw and did, except with the others who shared it all. My grandfather served in World War I, my father in World War II, my uncle in Korea, my cousin in Vietnam. None of them talked about it.
In a perfect world, war wouldn’t happen. But we’re not perfect, and war does happen. Men–and now women, too–who are not less afraid than we are but who are much braver, pay the price. They deserve to be thanked and remembered. They deserve respect for the job they do.
The lines at the cemeteries, at the Memorial Day programs (if there even are any) or at the church services on this day should be at least half as long as the lines on the expressways or at the restaurants. The moments of silence for those who died should be just as enthusiastic as the shouts of those cramming thoughtless fun, fun, fun into the weekend as hard as they can.
We wouldn’t even have this holiday weekend if we didn’t have men and women willing to put on a uniform, go where they are told, and risk their lives for the rest of us. So to all of them I say, thank you. I, for one, won’t forget.