Memorial Day 2002
"…from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain."
Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead, Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
My father always told me that "every day was Memorial Day for someone." Some mothers child was taken from her at some far away place, every day on the calendar. You can not pick a single date of any week or any month that this country has not lost one of her "best and brightest." It is a nice gesture that the government has set aside a day for this observance but it is nothing like what it was intended to be. Memorial Day is exclusively for honoring those who died serving in uniform during wartime. This remembrance is all inclusive, spanning 227 years and some 60 military actions that claimed 1.4 million lives. Most Americans are familiar with the major wars like the Revolutionary War, Civil War, WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf, but few think of those killed in between these periods. Lesser-known actions range from the Franco-American Naval War (1798-1800) to the most recent tragedy of the fighting in Afghanistan. No American death is too insignificant to remember when that life was lost at the protection of our society. The death of a sailor in the Gulf is every bit as important as a Marine killed in the Pacific during WWII or a Minute Man killed in New Jersey, such distinctions of time and place are irrelevant. So what drives it you ask? Today it is money. That is not what Memorial Day is about, a day off or a big sale as seen in the Sunday newspaper supplement, that is what it has become, capitalism has a way of doing that if not watched closely enough. How could something so solemn get so far out of hand? These folks are real heroes and deserve more then a "white sale" at the local department store. Attending commemorative ceremonies is the most visible way of demonstrating remembrance; placing flags at gravesites, marching in parades, dedicating memorials and wearing Poppies are examples. My mother could not pass a veteran selling poppies, NEVER, it didn't matter if she could afford it or not, she bought one. Yes, Frank is on the soap box again.
I have always told people that "if it weren’t for bad luck I wouldn’t have any luck at all." That just isn’t true, my entire generation is one of the luckiest generations of the Twentieth Century. I have had the privilege to have been born at a time in history that placed me at the age when there just wasn’t any war the U.S. was involved in. I grew up watching the Vietnam War on television. It ended before I was of age to have been a participant, that folks makes me one of the luckiest fellows around, to have been spared the horrors of war. Far too often, my generation takes for granted the freedoms all we Americans enjoy. Those freedoms were paid for with brave lives few of us actually knew. That my friends is why they are all remembered on one special day. Memorial Day must be commemorated for the good of all Americans, but what about my generation, and more importantly, future generations? Do they really recognize the importance of May 27? Enough, now some history.
While there is still some question about the origins of Memorial Day, there is no doubt one of the first was celebrated in the South. In January 1866, women in Columbus, Georgia issued a public call for the graves of Confederate soldiers to be covered with flowers. The first Confederate Decoration Day was observed that spring. Meanwhile you see, in 1865, Henry C. Welles, a druggist in the village of Waterloo, NY, mentioned at a social gathering that honor should be shown to the dead of the Civil War by decorating their graves. In the Spring of 1866, he again mentioned this subject to General John B. Murray, Seneca County Clerk. General Murray embraced the idea and a committee was formulated to plan a full day devoted to honoring the recent war dead. Townspeople adopted the idea with vigor, wreaths, crosses and flower blankets were made for each veteran's grave. The tiny village was decorated with flags, all at half mast and draped with black mourning streamers. On May 5, 1866, several civic societies joined the procession to the three different village cemeteries led by war veterans marching to martial music. At each cemetery there were impressive services including speeches by General Murray and a local clergyman. The ceremonies were repeated again on May 5, 1867 before any official recognition for this day was considered. In 1868, commander-in-chief of the GAR (Grand Army of the Republic), General John A. Logan, ordered the 30th of May be set aside as a memorial day for the purpose of honoring the dead of the Civil War. This was General Order No. 11 establishing "Decoration Day" as it was then known. General James Garfield was the speaker at the first observance at Arlington National Cemetery just outside Washington D.C. on May 30, 1868. The South refused to acknowledge Decoration Day, honoring their dead on separate days until after World War I. In 1882, the name was changed to Memorial Day, and soldiers who had died in other wars were also honored. In May of 1966, just in time for the Centennial, Waterloo, N.Y. was recognized as the "Birthplace of Memorial Day" by the United States Government. This recognition was long overdue and involved many hours of research to prove the claim. While other communities may claim earlier observances of honoring the Civil War dead, none can claim to have been so well planned and complete, nor can they claim the continuity of observances that Waterloo can. It is now celebrated in almost every State on the last Monday in May. Passed by Congress in 1971 (National Holiday Act of 1971 (P.I. 90-363), prior to that Memorial Day was observed each May 30.) to ensure a three day weekend for Federal holidays. If there wasn’t something in it for them it would have never happened. Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day in my mind. Let there be no doubt, this has contributed greatly to the general public's ho-hum observance of Memorial Day. Several southern states have an additional, separate day for honoring the Confederate war dead: January 19 in Texas, April 26 in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi; May 10 in South Carolina; and June 3 (Jefferson Davis' birthday) in Louisiana and Tennessee.
The White House Commission on the National Moment of Remembrance, was formally established by Congress to help reclaim Memorial Day for the noble and sacred reason it was intended: To honor those who died in service to our nation. The National Moment is a personal, voluntary, one-minute pause for reflection and remembrance, wherever you may be, held at 3 p.m. (local time) on Memorial Day. How about that, Congress is giving back a minute of silence to a sacred day they ruined with the three day weekend. It took the White House to assign a Commission to get that, the Clinton White House no less! So let me get this straight, the White House and Congress are asking for a minute of silence on what should already be one of the most solemn days in the country. Boy, that sure is showing your patriotism, keeping your mouth shut for a whole minute. I wish I could just fire the whole bunch in D.C. and hire new ones with common sense.
Perhaps the most profound tribute of all was made on the first national Memorial Day observance in May 1868 by General James A. Garfield (later President) when he said: "They summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and virtue."
Yes, that is the Memorial Day story as I know it.
To all the veterans out there........ THANK YOU!