As I plunge ever deeper into curmudgeonhood, one of my more nagging gripes is the diminishing number of “markers” that lie ahead. Looking back, there were always events that helped me measure forward movement … things like the close of school, the beginning of summer romance, getting my first car, graduation and, of course, turning a manhood-affirming twenty-one. After that there was getting my first job, taking a wife, buying a home, taking another wife, raising some kids, changing careers and … retirement? Well, you know what I mean. Each event was a mile post along life’s highway, but as the miles faded more rapidly into the rear view mirror there were fewer posts … now, I have to look for them. Sometimes I have to look pretty hard.
In Fiddler On The Roof, Tevia held “Tradition!” in the highest regard. Suddenly I know what he meant. On one hand, traditions are lasting markers … things that let you see the shore, even when your boat may be adrift. On the other hand, as those markers zip by along with the rest of the scenery, original meanings behind many of our traditions seem to blur. People even talk about “starting a new tradition”, which by its very definition is impossible.
Memorial Day is one of those blurred casualties. Originally called Decoration Day, it was celebrated on May 30th, until 1971 when it was changed to every last Monday in May so people could have a three day weekend. You hardly even see a parade anymore. To most people, it has become just an extra day off or a good excuse to crank up the ol’ barbie and burn a few burgers. If you’re in retail it means holding a special sale. For mirror watchers it’s starting a diet to look better at the beach.
To me it was always the beginning of summer … that is once I was out of school and started looking for new markers. It was Memorial Day that heralded the beginning of summer and Labor Day that closed the door at the end. Never mind what he calendar said. Then three things happened: I bought a flagpole and began reading about flag protocol, certain politicians began to demonize the brave men and women who defend our freedom, and I renewed a friendship with an old CB buddy who happens to be a military historian. I served my country but never in combat and for the first time I really listened to Bill’s accounts of valor and personal sacrifice. They were chronicled from men he was privileged to know … and others that could only be researched.
These three events were my perfect storm. I became acutely aware that, while I was complaining about the number of markers in my life, there were untold thousands of chosen patriots who had preserved my right to grouse about such things, yet now had only a single marker of their own … the one above their heads. These were ordinary people who did extraordinary things. They expected to die old men and women, griping about mile posts back in their home towns. Instead, they were given a small piece of peaceful real estate for their deeds and one special day each year to be honored.
It is these dedicated heroes and their families that define Memorial Day, not vacations and weenie-roasts or even the beginning of summer madness. Oh I’m not saying these things should stop, nor will they. But is it asking too much to take time out from the celebration and remember those who made it all possible … to make sure our kids know about them?
Every morning when I raise my flag, I snap them a proud salute and say, “Thank you fellas!” You know what? That’s a marker I can count on for as long as I’m around to worry about such things. Maybe it’ll catch on!
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