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December 14, 2017

Losing Memorial Day

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This is the weekend that officially starts summer for most of us.

Cussing out the back ends of RV’s that don’t understand what a pull-off is for or that it’s illegal to back up more than five cars’ worth of traffic. Ever see a giant motor home pulled over or ticketed for 27 cars behind it? Me neither. People are breaking the barnacles off their barbecue grills and trying to remember if it’s the recipe for St. Louis ribs or molasses and mustard rub that got their version of Uncle Leo so excited last year. From the fold-outs in the paper, it seems like a good time to buy washers, dryers and lawn mowers.

We seem to have lost what Memorial Day is about. It’s not a launch forward into salmon canning season or hurry up and paint the spare bedroom because the long-lost relatives have discovered you moved to Alaska. It was originally called Decoration Day when people would visit the graves of those lost in the Civil War. It was a remembrance.

When President Ronald Reagan laid a wreath in honor of our fallen, he said: “If words cannot repay the debt we owe these men (I would add women), surely with our actions we must strive to keep faith with them and with the vision that led them to battle and final sacrifice. Our first obligation to them and ourselves is plain enough: The United States and the freedom for which it stands, the freedom for which they died, must endure and prosper. Their lives remind us that freedom is not bought cheaply. It has a cost, it imposes a burden. And just as they whom we commemorate were willing to sacrifice, so too must we — in a less final, less heroic way — be willing to give ourselves.”

A week or so ago, a couple men with guns walked up the beach. I don’t know what happens in your neighborhood in spring, but in our watery cul de sac it could easily be bear hunters. I usually root for the bears and figure anyone with the sense to buy that much camo didn’t really know how to hunt. I’m usually right. This time I was wrong. They were land surveyors measuring plots and marking corners. Considering how many piles of bear scat there are, it wasn’t a bad idea to have protection.

I had a chance to visit with them. I have lots of questions about boundaries. I’m sure you’re shocked. Both were retired military and one works as a chaplain counseling suicidal veterans. He’s not able to save them all and it weighs on him. At one point he had at least one veteran from every branch of the service in crisis care.

Memorial Day isn’t the same as Veterans Day, but because of our lack of care for these broken souls coming home from wars we ignore, they are going into the Memorial column and out of the Veteran column at what should be unacceptable levels. When I mentioned 22 a day to the good chaplain, he said that number was way too low.

The American Legion blasted the 2018 Trump administration budget, saying it was a “stealth privatization attempt” of veterans benefits and that it “breaks faith with Veterans.” It also breaks faith with the memory of the fallen who, had they survived, would need more than a damn wreath laid on their grave and a poppy on a lapel.

Every grave from every war was someone with a birth story. Who were they named after? Was it an uncle who sent $5 on birthdays? What sports teams did they cheer for? What books did they read over and over? What did they order on their pizza?

How do you measure the space of someone’s life between the morning paper and a cup of coffee? What calibration is there to put a number on the tears shed or moments taken from a departed soul? How do you know what they could have been?

You can’t.

You can honor the not knowing. Acknowledge the vacancy their deaths have made. Say their names out loud, even if your voice breaks for a stranger. They were somebody’s someone.

This weekend, don’t try to pass campers, don’t burn the ribs, don’t forget our fallen, and remember the walking wounded.

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