I had a friend at work who was rather vocal about his support for liberal social issues and his disdain for the political landscape during the Bush administration. In 2007 or 2008, he spent three weeks in Shanghai on business. On the last morning he was there, the television showed a stadium full of people who had gathered to witness an execution. Three young men were shot by a firing squad for first time possession of marijuana; no appeals, no clemency. My work friend said he wanted to kiss the ground when his plane touched down again on American soil.
Memorial Day always pulls me up short like that. We have 364 other days each year to debate our past and present military engagements. This is a day when people’s thoughts turn to the courage and sacrifice of men and women in uniform who have done their best to defend a culture that gives us trial by jury, a constitution that says the punishment must fit the crime, and countless other benefits it is easy to take for granted until they are threatened.
This is a day when I think of my grandfather, Morgan. At 17, he lied about his age so he could enlist for the war to end all wars. To his great disappointment, it was over before he made it “over there.”
I think of my father, Howard, who served as a radar technician in WWII. His old navy manuals fueled my own interest in ham radio, and ultimately led me down my career path. As a non-combatant, my father avoided the worst physical and emotional scars, and yet even though he looked so young at 23, he and most of his generation always seemed older than their years.
Time paints the conflicts of the past with the sepia tones of memory. The poppies grow in Flanders field, and the last World War I veteran died on May 5 of this year. At 14 he lied about his age to join the Royal Navy and then lived to be 110. This is the stuff of historical novels. Present realities are never as tidy. Yet this is a day to be thankful for all those who find the courage to serve, even if for the “wrong” reason – like a friend of mine who enlisted for Viet Nam in an alcoholic blackout.
Not long ago, while walking the dogs one Saturday morning, we passed a military honor guard waiting outside a local church. I thought of the solemn dignity of the honor guard that folded the flag and handed it to me at my father’s memorial service. Such rituals are very important. By whatever means we have, these are things we have to remember.