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Bullets, bombs and holes in our hearts

I was 14 when Congress moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 to the last Monday in the month. In doing so, Congress diluted the day’s meaning from a day of remembrance to the third day of just another three-day weekend. True, the traditions continue of parades and solemn remarks delivered at cemeteries by veterans or current armed forces members. Yet how large are the crowds that attend these events compared to the number of people who scurry about, oblivious to the calendar?

I have a family connection to Memorial Day, although it’s not nearly as strong as my mother’s. In her living room, my mother’s mother prominently displayed a photograph of a handsome young man in a military uniform. It was an uncle I never met. His name was Milton. He’d been killed during World War II. That was all I knew about him until a couple of years ago, when I asked my mother to tell me how he died. She said he was riding in the front of a glider when a German machine-gunner opened fire. My uncle never knew what hit him.

I think of that photo on Memorial Day (and other days, too), but I truly have no connection to the man other than DNA. But I wonder what it was like for my grandmother and for my mother when they learned of her son’s/brother's death. Some 405,000 other American fatalities occurred during the war’s four years—416 per day. I wonder what it was like for the parents and loved ones of the casualties of Vietnam: 58,000 dead. Or for the parents and loved ones of the casualties of the War on Terror: some 6,500 so far, in a war that shows no signs of ending.

Those 6,500 casualties pale compared to World War II or Vietnam, but we need to remember that today’s surgical and medical techniques would seem miraculous to Vietnam-era doctors and medics. Who knows how many troops from the War on Terror have survived traumas that would have killed them in Vietnam? But for many of them, the trade-off for life is another constant fight: a fight to deal with awful physical and mental disabilities, a fight against bureaucracies that fail to treat these men and women with the dignity and support they deserve.

But aren’t we as a nation disrespecting the military dead and living on Memorial Day Monday, when every store is open with Memorial Day sales; when automobile dealers wrap their promotions in trappings of red, white and blue; when the signs of solemn remembrances seem limited to a few folks lingering by headstones in shaded cemeteries where monuments to generals and cannons stand just behind the gates?

America used to shut down on Memorial Day. Stores closed. Gas stations closed. Traffic was a mere trickle compared to other days. The suspended animation of the great god Commerce let people gather to sit on front porches to reflect about the holes in their hearts that war left behind. It gave their children the opportunity to learn history as it is lived. The world moved slowly, or even seemed to stand still.

Those days vanished 40-odd years ago, never to return. And now this is referred to by many as a “holiday”—a word that profanes the memories of those who were taken from us by bullets and bombs. Perhaps if we took time to remember them, we would realize that it is up to all of us to work for peace instead of allowing our elected officials to so willingly send men and women to follow the fife and drum.


( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 28th, 2012 09:02 pm (UTC)
Thank you for honoring your uncle.
May. 28th, 2012 09:39 pm (UTC)
And thank you for reading and commenting.

May. 29th, 2012 01:45 am (UTC)
Beautiful piece, PJV.
May. 29th, 2012 11:18 pm (UTC)
Thank you, Carole. That one pretty much wrote itself. All I did was move my fingers.
May. 29th, 2012 03:19 am (UTC)
I was at the parade in Olean today as I have been since my two sons began playing in the local school band. They have long since stopped but I remain a constant at both Memorial and Veteran’s Day observances. Much like your experience with your Uncle Milton you knew little about, I have had a similar experience. My father was always cryptic about his family from a place called McDonald, Pa. A few years after his passing in 1995 I Googled his name because I was contacted by an insurance company telling me my dad had taken a burial policy on me and did I want the money. Much to my surprise the first name to come up on Google was a cousin, Daniel Carl Capitani, born 3/14/1949-McDonald, Pa. , sent to Viet Nam 9/29/1969, killed in action 12/16/1969. Try as I might to find information and having no actual family connection it was frustrating to me. I found him on the Net’s Virtual Wall of the Viet Nam Memorial Wall. His picture is there, a sweet looking 19 year old that looks 15 and should be taking his girlfriend to a movie. I don’t know why but I felt an instant connection to him. A couple of years ago, my wife And two sons went to Washington, D. C. and went to the Wall. At Panel 15 w Line 062 is Daniel Carl Capitani etched into the Wall among thousands of other heroic men and women who willingly gave the ultimate sacrifice to protect America and it’s citizens. I brushed my finger tips gently over his name, uttered a silent prayer for his everlasting and peaceful rest under the Lord’s watchful eyes and snapped a picture of his name on my phone. My wife and I were visibly touched or perhaps better described as shaken by the sheer magnitude of the Wall and its’ significance not only for the tremendous loss, but the understanding that each name was a life that was offered up for our safety and protection. The impact that they were all sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters to someone really hits you. My youngest son, 16 at the time spoke as we walked to the end and said he was astonished at the overwhelming sense of sadness he felt. I responded that this was only the loss America had felt that human kind can’t seem to learn from history so we repeat it. Today as I stood on the bridge listening to the strains of God Bless America, The Star Spangled Banner and finally Taps, I thought of Daniel, the picture of his face was in my head, and as I watched the flowered wreath slowly float down the river I reached into my pocket and opened my phone and directed the picture of his name on the Wall to the river. Uncle Milton and Daniel are what Memorial Day is all about, DUTY, HONOR, COUNTRY # HOLIDAY
May. 29th, 2012 11:17 pm (UTC)
That is a touching piece of writing, Jeff.

Many, many years ago, when I was a reporter at the OTH, some veterans groups brought the Moving Wall to Olean. At the paper, we put out a special section with the photos, names and brief biographical information for all of the war victims listed on the wall. Their relatives provided us with the photos and information. I was processing all the copy. For hours I worked on it, taking great care with spellings, dates, etc. and having to make a few phone calls along the way to verify things.

It was after one of those phone calls that I realized exactly what I was working on: a compilation of dozens and dozens of tragedies—needless ones, as history would have it. I was working in my home office, and I still remember what it felt like to slump my head into my hands and let the tears flow.
May. 29th, 2012 05:02 pm (UTC)
Wow, strong piece, pjv.

My folks, and I assume others, used to call it "Decoration Day" - it was the day for taking flowers to the graves of loved ones. My folks still do it for as many as they can; hubby and I have taken over the others for them. We drove down to Allegany on Sunday, taking Rene with us, to plant flowers on the Doc's grave.
May. 29th, 2012 11:10 pm (UTC)
I was thinking of your dad yesterday—specifically, about how fortunate you were to have Lou Michel come to your house so you could hear many of Chuck's untold stories. And it seems to me that my dad once told me Doc's nickname was somehow related to his military service—but that was a long time ago and I may have it wrong.
May. 30th, 2012 07:26 am (UTC)
I think about this a lot, too. I have similar family connections who are buried near Waterloo, New York - the birthplace of Memorial Day.

All in all, well said. Per usual, pjv.
May. 30th, 2012 11:56 am (UTC)
I did not know that about Waterloo. As the saying goes, You learn something new every day.
Jun. 1st, 2012 03:01 pm (UTC)
This was a beautiful piece (she said as she dabbed her eyes with a limp tissue)

After Mom & Dad left for Florida, I was tasked with packing up what was left in the dresser drawers, and I ran across newspaper clippings from when Uncle Milton died, and when his body was finally sent back home - old, yellowed, fragile pieces of paper that I tried to touch without really touching them for fear of breaking a piece off. I sat on the floor weeping uncontrollably for several minutes. I can't imagine the pain that a mother feels losing her son - I can't let my brain go there - or a sister losing her brother.

A former coworker who left the retail world long ago once commented that there are no real holidays anymore - not the kind you described where the country shuts down. It's all retail, all the time. Sell! Sell! Sell! Open your doors on Thanksgiving so all the turkey-stuffed buyers can get a head start on Black Friday. Memorial Day car sales, 4th of July summer blow-outs, Labor Day back-to-school sales... and forget Veteran's Day, that's just a regular day for the retail world, after all, it's not a Monday Holiday so it's just business as usual.
I get the three day weekend idea, but somehow those days off in the middle of the week were so much better!
Jun. 2nd, 2012 09:38 pm (UTC)
As somebody once said, a million deaths is a statistic; one death is a tragedy.
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )

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