Memorial Day, which many of us celebrated with a brat and a beer, is the unofficial beginning of summer.
The stated purpose of the holiday, as we all know, is to remember those in the military who had died in the service of their country. If we took that objective seriously, there would have been a certain somber soberness to how we “celebrated” the day. I remember as a kid in the 1950s watching men in their thirties and forties wearing their VFW caps and proudly marching almost in step in the Memorial Day parade behind the Manitowoc Lincoln High School band. Most of them were veterans of the “good war” in which the whole country sacrificed together to defeat Hitler and Hirohito.
Those guys with their growing pot bellies were proud of their service, but triumphalism was for the most part absent in their mood, because as they marched they were remembering their buddies who had died away from home, sometimes in their arms on the field of battle.
My father never marched with the other veterans. He had served in the Army during World War II and was drafted again during the Korean War, this time into the Air Force where he flew fifty missions in a B-26 as a navigator/bombardier. He had to sit in the plexiglass nose of the plane where the bomb site was, sometimes with flak exploding all around him.
My father hated everything about war.
For one thing, he remembered the terror of combat. For another, he took no pleasure in the destruction caused by the bombs he was dropping. He had a ringside seat view in the nose of the plane and could sometimes see the drivers in a North Korean military convoy running for their lives from their trucks when they heard the engines of his plane overhead.
My dad appreciated a paid day off from his job selling automotive supplies at the Sears and Roebuck on Eighth St., but the memories the last Monday in May stirred in him were painful. He died in 1970. Only fifty years old. My mother always said that the stomach ulcer from which he died was caused by the war.
My mother and I would remember my father every year on the anniversary of his death. The pain, as usually happens, diminished over time and tears were largely replaced with the telling of funny stories about him, but the emotional hole in our lives would never be completely filled.
We, my mother and I, loved him. We loved him, but I remember that my mother never idealized him. She never tried to fill that emotional hole by pretending he was the best husband who ever lived or that theirs was the perfect marriage.
I too have experienced terror because of war, but unlike my father I’ve never been in combat. I remember all of my college classmates huddled around the TV in our dormitory lounge as the results of the 1969 draft lottery were being announced. By then the conflict—which is called the American War in Hanoi’s military museum by the way—had turned into a nightmare from which seemingly the whole country longed to wake up.
The distress on the faces of classmates who learned that their birthdays were high on the list was palpable. I remember the anxiety I felt until I learned that my number was 286. The memory of being a pall bearer for my neighbor Dennis Belonger who died in Viet Nam at the age of 19, was fresh in my mind.
When I was in Hanoi two years ago, I was amazed by the lack of animosity I experienced because I was American. Not a single person even looked at me sideways. Almost everywhere I went, people would approach me and want to practice their English. When I asked a thirty something restaurant owner about how welcoming his countrymen had been to me, he replied that his father, my contemporary, still had nightmares about the war, but that he and his generation had no memory of the conflict from their own experience.
My liturgy professor in seminary preached to us that without Good Friday we can’t appreciate Easter Sunday. You have to grasp the meaning of the cross, he would tell us, in order understand the miracle of the empty tomb.
I realize that this column is a day late and a dollar short, but maybe we still have time to do Memorial Day well. I’m not talking about dwelling on the horror of war. I’m not a pacifist who thinks nonviolence is always the best choice. And I’m certainly not against honoring those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of our country.
What worries me are two things. The first is that we forget the cost of going to war. The second is that we deal with our grief by adopting a “my country right or wrong” attitude. Perhaps, those little American flags the VFW places on the graves of veterans haven’t yet been removed. It might be good for our personal and national spirits to take a slow drive around the cemeteries we have in town, just to remember.