One of my earliest reminiscences of Memorial Day was in 1960. Hawai’i had fairly recently joined the union so dad had purchased a brand new 50 star flag to display on the front porch. I was sitting on the front porch steps under that flag thinking about both Hawai’i and Alaska and how the 49 star flag didn’t get much mileage.
My attention shifted to one of the peony bushes near the porch. The flowers were mostly open with their generous, fluffy looking blooms. There were a few unopened buds. Black ants were crawling all over them. I had just learned that peonies needed ants to help them bloom. After opening, ants and bees shared the pollination business of the plants.
I lost interest in the ants and went to the garage to see what dad was up to on his holiday off. He was applying Turtle Wax to his dark green 1953 Buick Special. An old Coronado radio was switched on to the broadcast of the Indianapolis 500 car race. I listened for a few minutes before taking my bike out for a ride around the neighborhood. I had a vague idea about the meaning of the holiday, but it wasn’t a real personal concept to me.
Our family had relatives who had served in the U.S. armed forces, but fortunately none had been killed in action. The rest of my extended family was still alive and relatively young. Both sets of grandparents were hale and hearty. My maternal grandparents and mom’s brother were still farming. The paternal grandparents had moved to town to enjoy retirement. I even had some great-grandparents who were alive yet.
With the passage of several years, some of those people had died. That meant that our Memorial Day began to mean visits to cemetaries. My maternal grandma always called the day “Decoration Day”. Nobody else did. I will always associate her with that alternate name for the holiday.
By my late teens, the Vietnam conflict had engulfed not only southeast Asia, but the culture at home in the USA, too. Many of my classmates and friends had been drafted or had volunteered for military service. While my political views were decidedly anti-war and somewhat leftist in nature, my concerns included worries about the health and safety of my pals in the US Navy and especially the US Army.
It turns out that the one friend in the Navy was killed in a non- combat incident. A fire in the engine room of his ship killed him while the ship was anchored near Bong Son. A friend who was a childhood playmate of mine was injured while on an Army patrol near Bo Duc in central South Vietnam. Two months later he died of his injuries in a Saigon hospital.
More years would pass. Death claimed my paternal grandfather, then my mother, later my maternal grandmother and grandfather, afterwards, then my paternal grandma.
The AIDS epidemic took a share of some of my friends and acquaintances during the 1980s. These were especially tragic because those guys were so young, talented and full of promise and energy. Public misunderstanding and fear relegated these victims to pariah status.
Years later, extended family began to die out. Especially painful were the loss of a special great aunt and eventually her husband a lion of a great uncle passed away in California. More recently I lost my step mother and my younger brother within a six-month span of time.
Eventually, we all grow to find special meaning in the observance of Memorial Day. So, while you’re enjoying a family get-together, or visiting cemetary sites try and remember the happier times shared with those who have died before us.
I know that my brother would be sitting in front of his teevee at the edge of his seat watching the progress of the Indy 500.
The Blue Jay of Happiness remembers those who sacrificed their lives in service to our nation.