Memorial Day Memories Past

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.

A Walk with the President–The Jefferson Memorial–Stop 3

The stark reality of the Lincoln years do not fade away; the statue of the man decreases with the distance as we walk away. But the magnitude of his contributions to our nation do not. We approach the Jefferson Memorial.

Again our conversation moves to how we honor the past and recognize the lessons the past holds for us in the fast-moving-digital present, let alone the future.

When the cherry trees that surround the Tidal Basin are in bloom, it is a magnificent sight. The Jefferson Memorial rests on the south bank of the Basin. The neo-classical structure of the Memorial adds to the  beauty of the place.  As we climb the broad steps to the portico, we turn to marvel again at the reflections of the cherry blossoms on the water. We enter the dome of the monument to find ourselves surrounded by the words of Thomas Jefferson, the president, the architect, inventor, musician, and writer.

We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. So avows our Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson was 33 when he authored this document.

We read on. Though there has been much effort to minimize the Christian beliefs of Thomas Jefferson, we see much evidence to the contrary. He was a strong advocate for religious freedom. He took great pride in authorship of The Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom passed in January, 1786. The Memorial reminds us: Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free, that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishment or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to…

The President and I stand in the Memorial; the words of the third President are etched in the marble. Jefferson’s words need to ring out again in our nation each year the cherry blossoms return to adorn the Tidal Basin and add extraordinary elegance to the beautiful edifice, the Jefferson Memorial.

Mr. President. May the return of the cherry blossoms each spring be a visible reminder of Jefferson’s words: we hold these truths to be self evident…

We descend the wide steps from the portico and breathe in the beauty of the cherry-blossom-lined Tidal Basin. Jefferson would approve of the site. His home, his beloved Monticello, was a beautiful result of his architectural skills. But his real passion was to give shape, substance, and essence to freedom for all in the new nation he was helping to bring into existence–this one-of-a-kind experiment known as our United States of America.

A Walk with the President–Lincoln Memorial–Second Stop

The Washington D.C. sky is blue and as we leave the Washington Monument the monuments of the mall stand in relief against their background. The Washington Monument sends its tall, grand shadow across the water of the reflection pool. As you take a peek back to make certain that this obelisk is as significant as its reflection indicates, you are struck again with the majesty of the structure.

We turn our eyes toward our next stop–The Lincoln Memorial. Even from the distance the figure of Abraham Lincoln is as imposing in marble as it was in life. This tall man is seated in the sculpture, but remains large and impressive. As you approach the scene, the serenity of the place is in sharp contrast to memories of the horrible sights and sounds of the strife and struggles during Lincoln’s Presidency. We climb the expansive steps to the man and his words. The man sits surrounded by many of his most memorable words–statements and expressions of his fanatic search for justice and guidance.

Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address in 1861, was given when he was facing the secession of the South and the mammoth divide in the nation he loved. Inscribed is: Intelligence, patience, Christianity, and firm reliance on Him who has never yet forsaken this favored land, are yet competent to adjust in the best way all our present difficulties.  Yes, Mr. President, In God we Trust, is all around us in the Capitol. Lincoln’s statement confirms his trust.

As we feel the solemnity of this place, we read on. The Gettysburg Address carved in the wall speaks; one cannot read the words without remembering the images of the battle and the terrible toll, the field of dead bodies. Lincoln’s words are not only etched in the walls, they ring in our ears and the tears sting our eyes…that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom…  Yes, Mr. President, under God. This same God that our Founders knew provided the Divine Guidance for their deliberations. And it’s the same God we know from our Bible, the Book that has guided our Christian Heritage since its founding. It is the God in our national anthem and our Pledge of Allegiance.

“Mr. President. When you say we are no longer a Christian nation, it seems you are proclaiming that all that we see and know of our Christian Heritage is gone, fading away, a myth, or replaced.  Is this part of the transformation of which you spoke as a candidate? Has our tolerance for other religions and our unshakable belief in religious freedom made it easy to take our strength, our tolerance, and use it to erase our founding, our Christian beginnings?”

We finish reading the inscriptions on the walls; we stand beside the mammoth statue of Lincoln. The words of this great President fill the air of the chamber; they are carved in stone but they are alive in this place. The Emancipation President knew this nation could only survive the tidal wave of secession and the Civil War that followed with the help of continuing Divine Guidance.

We leave the sculpture of the giant behind us as we walk down the many steps, but we can never leave the teachings and the influence on us and our country of this man. It was during his Presidency that In God we Trust was placed on our currency. How many time a day do we touch a coin or bill that reminds us of that motto?

We take one look back at the enormity and significance of this American President as he looks out across the Capitol. We turn our eyes to the next stop in our journey and conversation about who we are. We make our way toward the Jefferson Memorial. Silence  exists for most of the way; the Lincoln Memorial has that effect on its visitors.

A Walk with the President–Washington Monument–First Stop

A haunting statement by the President in a speech lingers in my mind and soul. “No matter what we once were, we are no longer a Christian nation,”  President Obama declared. It is that statement that cause me to invite the President to take a walk with me. We’ll start at his temporary home, the people’s house, the White House.

As we make our way to the Washington Monument, our first stop, we discuss the spirit in a Christian White House. The many prayers and supplications of the first occupant of the White House, George Washington, must surely live in the walls of the rooms that heard those prayers. “Has that not continued with you?” I ask?

We arrive at the Washington Monument. The magnificent obelisk stands tall against the morning sky. We touch the cornerstone; there the sacred Bible of the first President of these United States has been placed. Prayer was a cornerstone of the life of George Washington. And at the top of the monument is an aluminum cap that proudly bears the words Laus Deo. Those are the first words the sun touches as it shines on our Capitol. Praise be to God, those words say as they attest the presence of God to the sun, the raindrops, the fog, or snow that sometimes grace the monument grounds. But there they are, this declaration of our Christian heritage. If we were still allowed to climb the many stairs, we would witness Scripture. But we can feel the presence of our Creator in the majesty of this tall structure as it reaches toward heaven.

The Monument is a fitting reminder of the man, George Washington. This man was so popular following the Revolutionary War that he could have been King. Thankfully, he was the kind of man who just wanted to return to his plantation and be a farmer. But that was not to be; he became our first President.

From the time that his mother sent him off to war and commended him to the Providence of God and reminded him to private prayer, Washington continued to give testimony to his belief in the Providence of God. He became a legend as a warrior, even to the Indians; it seemed impossible to kill him. He believed that he ” was protected beyond all human probability and expectation, for I had four bullets through my coat and two horses shot under me, yet I escaped unhurt, although death was leveling my companions on every side of me.”

George Washington was a most remarkable man. He was a noble and pious gentleman. But there are many who have rewritten history, and our children may not even know what his birthday is. They have vacation “celebrating” presidents’ day. Yes, there are many efforts to deny, distort, or minimize our Christian heritage. Even President Obama has declared that we are no longer a Christian nation.

As we gaze at the beauty of the Washington Monument, I ask the President if he has noticed the Monument as Air Force One takes off or lands in his nation’s capitol? “Of course,” he replies. “And if you could read the aluminum cap from the sky,” I ask, “what would it say to you?”

We turn and walk toward the Lincoln Memorial. That will be our next stop on our walk. The cherry blossoms are gorgeous and the sky is blue; the Monument stands erect, proud and maintains its mastery of the sky. And at the top, the aluminum cap still says Laus Deo, Praise be to God.

Mr. President, we never have been anything but a Christian nation. That does not mean that we are all Christians; it means we have welcomed all other religions. We were founded because people sought and fought for religious freedom. Our republic was established to secure and maintain freedom for all. May Providence forever protect our Christian Heritage that was designed to keep us free.