Despite the local melancholy over the Bulls and Oprah fading away, this is the weekend we kick off our celebration of summer, with all its glories here in Chicago. My flowers are in the ground and pots. Sure, they could have used sweaters this week, but they are being stoic. The fake knee has functioned, though it still flexes more like a gyroscope than a hinge. My left leg is officially my kick stand, and my right leg and back has some bitching to do about that. Still, two years ago I was in crazy pain, and last year I was recovering from surgery. It was empowering to be able to decorate the garden myself without agony. Progress! Celebration! Good Fortune! Blessings! Summertime!
This weekend is primarily the official holiday upon which we remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. Grave decoration and cleaning is a universal rite of spring, and is acted upon in many cultures. It has been associated with soldiers since after the Civil War, when women's groups cleared the dead brush from the Confederate soldiers' graves. The North was added to the ritual by proclamation, though the Southern states seemed to be a bit resentful of the poaching of their custom, and did not embrace a National celebration until after World War I.
May 30th was the day of Remembrance until Lyndon Johnson planted it on the last Monday of May, in order to give Americans a three week holiday. With that calendar shift, Americans may have shifted their focus from the initial rationale for Memorial (Decoration) Day.
It is not Veteran's Day, which we observe in November. This is a day to thank those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. All 220,000 graves at Arlington will be marked with individual flags, installed by the next generation of soldier patriots. A wreath will be placed at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Taps will echo after parades across America.
In America today, we have so many dead soldiers. Some died after defending our freedoms, the security of other nations, or protecting humanity from despots. There are many who have died in service who were not in pursuit of noble goals like "saving the world", but were following the edict of their government. Those who slogged in Korea and Vietnam, and those who have died in the Middle East may not have enjoyed the waves of appreciation that our World War vets banked. On Memorial Day, we should recall that all these men were called, did their duty, and paid the ultimate price.
There is another class that we can remember- the soldier who has lost limbs, suffered catastrophic brain injuries, and those who dwell in darkness and despair. They may be among us, but their suffering has not ended. Their families will never be the same: the medical challenges and financial worries remain everyday challenges. A discharged soldier will receive disability and some health care benefits, but they do not come close to creating a living wage.
That is why the VFW uses this weekend for poppy sales: to benefit those who have given much, and now need a hand up. The ultimate irony is that the VFW is an organization that itself needs an infusion of new members to continue their work. The gentleman I bought my poppy from yesterday had no business risking his 80-something limbs in an intersection. For every car that rolled down its windows, ten passed. If that made me sad, I cannot surmise how he felt as he solicited for his brothers in arms.
So take a moment and find a way to help a Vet or a Vet's family. Do it between Indy and the barbecue. There is plenty of time to pause and say thank you. Honor our dead with a Memorial donation to the wounded of body or spirit. Toast them with your beer, support them in heart and in fact. Attend your local parade, and explain Memorial Day to your kids. Gratitude is an essential American value, just like valor. We must pass both to the next generation.
We are rich in America, despite our constant inventory of deprivation and financial loss. We are free. That did not happen by accident, but by design and dedication. This freedom was paid for with the blood of our bravest young men. It is a good time to reflect.
And in honor of our Veterans, I again cite the most eloquent "thank you" to our vanquished soldiers. It was penned by Dr. John McRae after the death of a soldier in the Battle of Ypres in 1915. Accounts say that they gathered the body parts into a sand bag and later, between battles, dug a grave. It is surmised that these words were read at his friend's memorial service, but it is known that they were sent to a British magazine for publishing, and were rejected. They were embraced by Punch Magazine, a periodical more noted for satire and political cartoons. Today they remain the most familiar ode to the fallen soldier. Each grave in the makeshift graveyard was marked with a cross. Incongruously,poppies grew nearby, birds sang, and life went on among volleys of gunfire. The author himself died of pneumonia while in active service, in 1918.
In Flanders fields, 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 among the guns below.
We are the dead. Short days ago,
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from falling hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
we shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.