Monday, May 30, 2005

Memorial Day...

Hmmm....It's weird that I feel slightly strange even posting this because I guess to do so may suggest über patriotism and I'm not über patriotic (we made the conscious decision not to put up American flags or get flag stickers after Sept. 11, but that may have more to do with the fact that the guy across the street put up not just an American flag but a special forces "Kill them all" flag). Maybe it's because the only veterans in my family that I ever really knew are still alive.

I'm currently listening to NPR's Talk of the Nation, which is, of course, running a show on "Remembering the War Dead." A guy called in upset about the fact that only he and one other house on his block are flying flags today, something that used to be much more common. It got me thinking about the fact that we are flying a flag today, and my own Memorial Day remembrances.

My first Boy Scout Troop used to help with the Memorial Day ceremonies at a local cemetery (in Los Angles rather than CO, so it was a huge cemetery -- huge enough that I could save 10 minutes when riding my bike to a friends house by scaling a wall, pulling my bike up over it, and then riding through the cemetery rather than around it). We not only played the role of Color Guard and led the Pledge of Allegiance on Memorial Day itself, we spent the weekend placing small flags at the graves of every veteran buried in the cemetery. It's hard not to be touched by the solemnity of the occasion when you do that 4 years in a row. There's the soldiers who died in combat, maybe 10 years older than myself. There's the solitary person (always a solitary person for some reason), mourning at a grave of a brother, father, son, friend, or sometimes a mother, wife, or daughter. It was slow going placing those flags, the rows were long and while we had a map that identified the row, plot, and name for each veteran, the physical plots were numbered so it was a mix of counting plots and reading headstones to find where to leave the flags. That meant we had plenty of time to watch a mourner out of the corner of our eye, especially since we didn't want to joke around when there were mourners nearby. Those solitary figures also get to you.

And then there's the Old Man and his Wife. One year there was this old man, a WW II vet visiting his wife's grave. She had been a Red Cross nurse or something like that during the war, but not, technically, a veteran, so we had no instructions to leave a flag at her grave. He told us who he was, who she was, and with tears in his eyes he tried to pay us to place a flag at her grave. We, of course, refused the money and left a flag. He thanked us profusely. He cried harder, but was clearly happy and proud that his wife's grave now flew a flag. A good half-hour later he came and thanked us again and again offered us money. He then tracked down our adult Scout leaders and thanked them and tried to give them money to give to us.

I could write a little essay on Memorial Day as social memory, how Memorial Day is one of our Les Lieux des Mémorie, to use Pierre Nora's term, and discuss the interconnectedness of personal and collective memory, how even personal memories are always socially constructed, and how by reading this my personal memories have now become part of your memories.

But not today. Today is for remembering the people like those at whose graves I placed flags, the solitary mourners at those graves, and, for me at least, the old man and his wife.

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