With Memorial Day upon us, I know you’re as eager as I to slip into something more comfortable — like fewer clothes, bare ankles or the water of a just-opened swimming pool.
But not just yet, for first I have a promise to keep.
Never to forget the original meaning of Memorial Day. That’s what Bill Burton asked of me.
Long before Burton became a newsman, before he became outdoors editor for the flourishing Baltimore Evening Sun, before the boredom of early retirement landed him on the pages of then six-week-old New Bay Times, Burton was a SeaBee. He joined up just out of high school, in the early days of World War II, and would have gone sooner had not his family held him back.
Whatever his war stories, Bill never told them — though in explaining why he never went in the water he did cite a promise to swim no more if he should be delivered from a desperate plight about which, if more were asked, his answer was enough said.
A reporter through and through, Bill told the stories of other veterans. Chief among them was Henry Beckwith …
Henry Beckwith of Navy Air who went down over Great Britain in ’44. As we fished, studied and chased girls, we anxiously waited to join the fight against Tojo and Hitler. Several times the Navy turned us down; we weren’t yet 17.
We had planned to serve together, but I wanted the SeaBees; Henry, Navy Air, so we parted when we joined up. I never saw him again, though often I have played tennis at the recreational center named in his honor.
I have lived a full life while Hen was around only 19 years. He never had the time to marry, start a family, never enjoyed the pleasures of adult life, that first new car and house, grandchildren, the works.
It isn’t only on Veterans and Memorial Day I think about those two carefree students, Hen and me, and wonder why it was he. Why was I the lucky one?
The day I received a newspaper clipping telling about villagers in Ireland burying Hen in a field where his plane went down, aloud I promised him he would never be forgotten.
Nor should any of the others be forgotten; it matters not what war, what place, what time. It matters only that they made the supreme sacrifice. Enough said.
That moving tribute was written by Bill Burton 10 years ago, in 2005, about a month before he turned 79 — 60 years more than his friend ever had.
So Bay Weekly honors Memorial Day, a commemoration begun to honor and decorate the graves of the Civil War dead with a story Bill Burton would have liked.
This year’s Memorial Day story comes to us from contributing writer Sandra Lee Anderson, of St. Leonard, who excerpted from her Uncle Chuck Baird’s book The Blue of the Sky, his record of the feelings of a 19-year-old experiencing the death of comrades during battle and their burial at sea.
The book is unpublished, but thanks to Anderson — whose mother was her brother’s helper in the book — The Blue of the Sky is in the collection of the United States Navy Memorial Foundation in Washington, D.C.
In it Laird speaks only briefly of the dead. Instead he speaks for them, in the voice of a young sailor full of life, fear, determination and expectation whose life could have at any moment been cut short. Until the moment they were no more, their stories would have been much like his.
Now, while we can, let’s live in the fullness of this summer — whose pleasures unfold before you in this year’s edition of our annual Summer Fun Guide, tucked in the pages of this week’s paper.
Sandra Olivetti Martin
Editor and publisher; firstname.lastname@example.org