So many Memorial Days; so many memories. Today is number 91. Of course, I don’t remember them all, but even when I was a very small child, I know I was participating in a parade, decorating the graves of not only those we honored, but those we loved, respected and wanted to remember. But I knew very early that some graves had flags. I learned very early that these were those special people who went off to war to protect us. I wasn’t very old when my Uncle John filled me in on what that meant. I don’t know exactly what year it was when I started to recognize the horrors of war as he related experiences in the Spanish-American conflict.
As a child I remember eagerly awaiting and watching for the peony, snowball, and bridal wreath bushes to bloom. Mother would check occasionally to see how they were progressing; would they be ready for “Decoration Day”? We had no greenhouse to force the blooms. We just had to wait. Our other possible supply was nature; we would sometimes take a stroll just to see what the fields and hills around us might be able to fill in. There were those very special occasions when mother would nurse plants all through the winter to have a geranium to fill in.
From the time I started playing an instrument in a school band, marching to the cemetery to participate in Memorial Day was on the calendar. In high school, we marched from the high school to the cemetery. Of course, we complained a lot. The walk was too long; it was too hot; it was cold and where was summer. But we knew that was what we would do on Memorial Day. That’s where most of the town would be–singing the National Anthem, listening to speeches, listening quietly as names were read, looking at the men in uniform, and there was always an invocation and a benediction. And we always hoped we could find a ride back to the high school. You can never forget the pride with which those men wore their uniform every Memorial Day even when it got a little tight. You absorbed that kind of pride and love when you heard them say how proud they were to serve this country that they loved. You learned early what it meant when they cried as they talked about the bravest of all, those who didn’t make it back alive, or how fortunate they were to make it back safe and sound.
During college years, I was able to be home by Memorial Day. I didn’t have to march to the cemetery nor worry about the state of the flowers, but I knew that Memorial Day was still a day to remember. And then Pearl Harbor happened. I was still in college, but graduated the next spring in 1942. I got home for Memorial Day and already some of my former classmates had joined the service. They were already fighting and dying in places that I had never heard of before. Just a short four years before we had marched to Oak Hill Cemetery and sat listening to the names of those who had sacrificed their lives for their country, for me and the citizens around me. And now some of their names had been added to that list. We had carried instruments to play music together and now they were carrying instruments of war or serving aboard ship, or driving a jeep or truck or tank in a land with unfamiliar terrain, climate, or name.
The 1942 Memorial Day was not only a few days after my graduation from college, it was a staggering entrance into new meaning to me for any Memorial Day to follow. Before the next Memorial Day would come, I had raised my right hand and pledged myself to serve in the United States Navy. It is something I could not have dreamed of a few short months earlier. But War changes lives rapidly. When Pearl Harbor was struck, a tsunami of national pride, anger, patriotism, and anxiety rolled over the land.
The next two Memorial Days were spent in the Navy. At the huge base where I was stationed in Tennessee, I watched daily as the men trained. I knew they would soon be in harm’s way. They were from every corner of our great country; Memorial Day in their hometown would never be the same. Their families would be sitting or standing at a Memorial Day ceremony with pride in their service, or tears in their eyes as their name was read in remembrance of those who gave their lives for their country.
World War II was a war that ended. You became a veteran; your husband was a veteran, and you both hoped that your two sons would never have to be veterans because they saw military service in a war; you prayed for peace.
I grew up believing that Memorial Day meant just that: a day to remember those who scarified their lives for the country that they loved. When you pledge to serve your country and you put on the uniform of any branch of the military, you give up a lot of freedoms you pledge to fight and die for. Yet we do it because we want freedom for our children and grandchildren, for friends and neighbors, and as a model for the world.
When I took off the uniform, I didn’t lose the values that I held when I put it on, nor did I lose my oath to uphold the Constitution. Nor did I forget the words, “so help me God” that I spoke. My job is no less now than it was then; it just may be a little more clear. I will always fight to remain free.