I’m no different. It’s a day off from work, a few extra minutes of sleep, maybe a picnic. One of my friends goes surfing. Another takes his kids to a baseball game. When I was a boy, Memorial Day – prelude to summer vacation – started with a parade. We stood in front of my grade school waving flags and followed the bands, floats and veterans of three or four wars to a cemetery half a mile away. There, Marines fired a three-gun salute and little boys dove after the spent cartridges, burning their hands.
Memorial Day started in 1868, three years after the war, as a way to coordinate commemorations of the Union dead. It was called Decoration Day, meaning one decorated the graves of the fallen. In his epilogue to the third volume of The Civil War: A Narrative, Shelby Foote explains the thinking behind the observance:
“Once a year at least – aside, that is, from regimental banquets and mass reunions, attended more and more sparsely by the middle-aged, then old, then incredibly ancient men who dwindled finally to a handful of octogenarian drummer boys, still whiskered for the most part in a clean-shaven world that had long since passed them by – these survivors got together to honor their dead. Observed throughout the North on May 30, Memorial Day hopscotched the calendar in the South, where individual states made their choices between April 26, May 10, and June 3. In any case, whenever it came, this day belonged to the veterans and their fallen comrades, and they made the most of it, beginning with their choice of a speaker, always with the hope that he would rival the ‘few appropriate remarks’ [272 words] Lincoln had uttered at Gettysburg on a similar occasion.”
Once the language on such occasions was florid, scripted by Thesaurus-users, and the audience felt or feigned sadness and uplift, and longed for the picnic. Still, they made the effort and the dead were remembered, briefly.
R.L. Barth, a Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam, writes in one of his finest poems, “A Letter to My Infant Son,” subtitled “outside Da Nang”:
“War is too much of sentimentality,
Which you soon learn is almost always brutal,
However sad, however pitiful.
So, when you ask some day to hear war stories,
Though I would have you truly understand,
How shall I answer you, if not with silence?”
[Barth’s poem is collected in Learning War: Selected Vietnam War Poems (Broadstone Books, 2021).]