The warm late May sunshine beat down, as we trooped along the road, the smell of hot asphalt mingling with the sweet scent of flowering lilacs from neighboring gardens. The streets were lined with little kids, families and friends, some waving American flags. I was marching with my high school band and Color Guard at the annual Memorial Day parade in our small New Jersey town. Our flags billowed in the slight breeze while the band played a Sousa march. As we neared the town cemetery, silence ensued. We filed in to stand respectfully for the five-gun salute, and the solemn playing of taps. The tombstones glistened in the blazing sun, some of those revered dead dating back to the Revolutionary War.
Many decades and many miles away, another cemetery comes to mind. My family and I often hike the Heritage Rail Trail at Hanover Junction, Pennsylvania, where Abraham Lincoln passed by on a train headed to Gettysburg to deliver his famous speech, dedicating the newly formed Soldiers’ National Cemetery there. In sad irony, just a few years later, Lincoln’s funeral train would make the sad journey on those same tracks en route to his midwestern resting place.
Indeed, Memorial Day ( then known as Decoration Day) originated in the years following the Civil War as a way to honor the Civil War dead. On May 30th of each year, observances were held to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers.
By the end of World War I, poppies became the flower of choice to remember the war dead, especially after the publication of the famous poem, “In Flanders Fields.” Canadian poet John McCrae, stricken with grief over the death of a fallen comrade at a battle in Ypres, Belgium, penned those lines after seeing the final resting place of his friend, a cemetery where poppies grew in profusion.
“In Flanders Field 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…”
Years ago, I was honored to have visited another of Europe’s most famous cemeteries, the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. Located on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach, the cemetery is the resting place of nearly 4.000 of our military dead, most of whom lost their lives in the D-Day landings of June 6, 1944. Emotions overcame me as I witnessed row after row of white crosses and Stars of David stretching to the horizon in orderly fashion. Unknown soldiers are buried among the service members, their headstones reading: ” Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God.”
The cemetery, of course, was featured in the film, “Saving Private Ryan.”
When I think of Memorial Day, I think of my Dad, Al, just a young 18 year old Wisconsin farm boy, aboard a Navy tanker traversing Pacific waters during World War II. The boat could have been a target for Japanese torpedoes at any time. By the grace of God he and his fellow sailors were spared.
I think of my father-in-law, Fred, in Patton’s Third Army, marching through war torn France, then liberating the notorious Nazi concentration camp, Buchenwald, where over 50 thousand met gruesome deaths. After the liberation, Fred often relayed how German citizens of neighboring towns were made to file through the camp to witness the atrocities that their feigned ignorance or silence had permitted.
And I think of my brother, Joe, who flew Navy planes over perilous skies in Vietnam and is now suffering with Parkinson’s Disease, a result of his exposure to Agent Orange while there.
Memorial Day is more than the official start of summer, more than a 3 day weekend of cookouts, ball games, and family gatherings. No, Memorial Day should be the somber remembrance of the half a million men and women who have died defending American freedom through the years in far-flung battlefields from the villages of New England, to the fields of Pennsylvania, to the countrysides of Europe, to the jungles of Vietnam, to the deserts of Afghanistan. They were defending America, our America, that magnificent experiment of freedom, though flawed and imperfect, still the hope of the world.
FREEDOM ISN’T FREE.