A barrage of teevee adds announcing TheMemorialDaySalesEvent! has stirred some anger in me, along with some coming-of-age memories.
Nothing says Lets Honor Our Fallen Dead like a good ole American show of capitalism at its finest. A car sale!, furniture sale!, all appliances and lawn furniture 10% off!-- the antithesis of what Memorial Day should be.
Memorial Day, that kick-off inaugural picnic that celebrates Summer in America, a time when we plant our tomatoes and cut down on weed growth by putting down mulch, and ensure lush, green, weedless yards by applying chemical products designed for that purpose--because who doesn't love a perfect, weed-free lawn?-- and then rev up our grills to sear us some meat.
We Americans are the Best in the World!, [everybody knows it! USA!USA!USA!], so it only makes sense to turn a Memorial Day into a day that celebrates.....lawns.and picnics. and nascar. Doesn't it?
It was late in the Viet Nam War era, and some of our native sons were over there, and some had already been returned to us in body bags.
They were our brothers, or cousins, or neighbors. We all knew someone who was serving there, because they were drafted and had no choice in the matter. You could say: we all had skin in this game.
And most of them were not happy about it. The country was still divided about the wisdom of our involvement--campus riots were erupting, and dinner-time in many
homes was marked by angry discussions between us kids and our parents.
The junior and senior boys in our band wore a haunted look, and they realized that this draft lottery thing was for real, and that they, too, could be forced into a very dangerous situation for a cause that they weren't sure they even believed in.
Memorial Day, and with football marching season and formal concerts behind us and only graduation to play for, this was our penultimate duty for the year. We donned our hot wool uniforms, with their stiff, structured overlays which displayed an embroidered version of our school mascot. White spats over our black patent leather shoes, and spiffy plastic plumed hats completed the uniform.
Band Nerds, every one of us, and we were ready to march.
We would gather at the band room on this day off, and to our credit no one skipped out on this duty....altho we probably could have, had we had that intent on this almost-the-end-of-school day off. Even the seniors showed up for this, and with graduation only days away, they most certainly would not have suffered any consequence for cutting.
But you might say we were drawn by a sense of duty, a need to contribute during this time of upheaval.
In my memory, it was always hot: upper 80's hot, and with that layered wool uniform--we had never been this hot in our lives.
After getting into parade formation with a drum cadence to keep us looking organized, we would march the mile or so from the high school to the bridge over the river.
We had been warned: stagger your cadence as you enter the bridge! Don't march! It was, after all, a "well-known fact" that the vibrations caused by marching in cadence could cause the bridge to crack, and send us all to our death into the river below. I never did find out if that was just Band Myth or Scientific Fact, but at the time it seemed
to make sense.
The highest honor: the two best trumpet players were selected to play taps--one who stood on the bridge near us, and the other, who had been sent down below. The bridge trumpet would sound those solemn and sad notes, and then the other would echo it back from the riverbank, as the old veterans in their too-tight uniforms would drop memorial wreaths over the side of the bridge.
I can still recall with clarity the chills up my spine at hearing those melancholy notes, despite the heat, the wool uniform, and my own teen-age cynicism. A goose-bump and tear-invoking moment for the sound of taps, and at seeing those old guys being all serious and sad, and in that moment looking like they were about 18 themselves, and holding back their tears.
[It was about this time that Invariably one or two of the majorettes would pass out.....because they were over-heated....while wearingthe equivalent of a bathing suit. diva weenies. but i digress......]
Next we would march to the city cemetery, at least a mile away. The taps ritual would be performed there again, first trumpet among us, and the second off in the woods. And then wreaths would be placed on the graves of all servicemen who had died in the line of duty.
We were released then from our official duties, and we'd loosen and modestly remove what we could of our unbearably hot uniforms and walk back to the band room to put away our instruments, and then walk home.
I think i remember that we'd have some small cook-out that day, our immediate family, i.e. No big parties or shopping at AMemorialDaySalesEvent!, but a reminder from my parents--who were the offspring of immigrants--that "This is the day we honor those who died serving our country. We need to stay quiet today and think about that."
A similar solemnity to that we offered on Good Friday.
I went to visit my daughter today, who lives some 80 miles away. I make this trip quite regularly, but as I drove along the interstate I noticed for the first time some four or five signs in that 60 miles--signs that designated a particular strip of highway as having been dedicated to servicemen who had died while serving.
These ranged in time from WWII, the Korean War, Desert Storm, up to more recent times.
One sign in particular stands out to me, because it bears the name of the son of one of my former classmates. A 21 year-old kid who was killed in the line of duty in Iraq this past year.
For the 4+ decades that I've had the cognizance to ponder this--but going back to the dawn of civilization--
we have learned nothing, it seems to me. Old men are still sending the young off to die for reasons no one fully knows. Our sons and daughters--with the innocence and optimism that only the young can muster--are still going off to do battle for causes that they're not quite sure they believe in.
And so it goes.
I don't know if my old high school band still marches for Memorial Day, but I'd like to think they do.
I'd like to think that a Memorial Day parade and service can still muster the young to march in that heat for some miles for something real, and that has meaning, and is
much bigger than a MemorialDaySalesEvent!
I'd like to imagine that tomorrow there will be some young people who stand on a bridge and hear Taps being played, and that they will shiver in the heat at that melody.
I'd like to imagine that when they get to be as old as I am now, they will have to explain to their grandchildren what "war" was, because that is an antiquated word,
and "war" is a term that they're not familiar with because the world is at Peace.
I'd like to imagine...