Memorial Day


May 30, 2003


My earliest recollections of Memorial Day were fashioned on by the great oxbows of the Connecticut River in little town of Newbury, Vermont.


Oddly these memories go back, not to the lilac days of late May but to the slush and ice of early March when year after year some old man would stand at town meeting and ask that $150.00 be spent for the  “observance” Memorial Day. This appropriate was always “warned” and listed in the town report as Article three.


It was always approved. Without dissent.


For me Memorial Day was always fun. There was celebration in the air. Adults would become preoccupied with the holiday and in that vacuum we kids found ways to raise a bit more hell than usual.


Besides Memorial Day signaled the end of the school year and back then (without adults laying in wait to organize our lives for this or that future purpose) summer stretched before us like an unending dream.


Then there were the parades: Tiny little parades with bicycles and farm wagons and groups of adults that would walk by waving at us for no apparent reason.


If we managed to get a ride up to the parade in Newbury’s northern village of Well’s River, however, we saw more. For there the parade was a joint venture with Woodsville New Hampshire. Now there were men in uniform marching by.  Now there were baton twirlers. Now there was a marching band.


The effect of a live marching band was electric to us country kids – the cadence of real drums, the call of brass instruments, the melody of the flutes.


 “When Johnny comes marching home again, hooray, hooray!”


But that was long ago.


Now I realize that so much of life is like the unfolding of a cruel oxymoron whereby contradictions are camouflaged with hope and melancholy is masked with celebration.


And Johnny doesn’t come marching home.


Memorial Day it seems to me is both a celebration and a lament. We celebrate, we honor, we remember, humankinds greatest of attributes, the one thing that separates us form all the other creatures of the earth, the fact that some of us, when called upon to give their lives for others of us, will do so. Courage, honor, bravery (what Hemmingway called the capacity to suspend the imagination): these are real and they are sacred. And yes they are represented by the flowing stars and stripes of the flag of the United States of America.


At the same time there is sadness the air. For we come together to lament another human attribute: our cursed capacity to get it wrong, to make horrible misjudgments. To let war happen. There is a certain clenched fist rage involved as well. Why, why, must the bugles cry and mothers weep? Why can’t we do something about it?


The answer as Bob Dylan wrote so long ago is beyond us. It is blowing in the wind.


And so it we are left with Memorial Day.


We come together because we choose to honor the very best in ourselves – those that made the ultimate sacrifice so that the rest of us could continue the struggle to find the way to insure that no more sacrifices be made.


There is no better place on the planet to do this than America.