Volume XVII, Issue 21 # May 21 - May 27, 2009

Memorial Day Is for Remembrance

But I fear we’ve forgotten

Day is done, gone the sun,
From the hills, from the lake,
From the sky.
All is well, safely rest,
God is nigh.

Go to sleep, peaceful sleep,
May the soldier or sailor,
God keep.
On the land or the deep,
Safe in sleep.

–Some of the more popular words to accompany the bugle call of Taps.
There are no official words.

For a while when my age was in the upper single digits, I recall Mother fretted that within me might be a morbid streak. Every Decoration Day, as Memorial Day was then known, she would shepherd the young Burtons the two-mile walk to the Acotes Hill Cemetery on the outskirts of the village. There the annual parade wound up with the firing of a salute to those no longer with us on one of the few special days in the lean years of the Great Depression.

Mother noticed that once the honor guard fired the traditional salute of three rounds, I, unlike the other boys of my age, did not join in the scramble for the spent shiny brass shell casings ejected from the rifles. I stood solemnly as beyond the hill came the bugle call of Taps. I remember once I couldn’t hide the tears and, because big boys don’t cry, I slipped off to the sidelines, facing the opposite direction to hide my embarrassment.

When we got home in early afternoon and I doffed my white duck long trousers (back then white was worn only between Memorial Day and Labor Day), Mother called me aside to ask — in the tender and understanding way only mothers are capable of — about my fascination with the call of Taps. Why didn’t I join the chase for the ejected shell casings? She knew any boy my age would treasure one of those as a souvenir of the big parade.

I was embarrassed. I knew Mother had seen her big boy’s tears, and a few more were spent as we talked things over. Worse, I couldn’t come up with any reason for my mesmerism at the bugle call signaling lights out, end of day. We knew of no words linked to Taps at the time, just those eerie and haunting notes from an unseen bugler on the other side of the hill, sometimes with an echoing encore from a second bugler beyond still another hill.

In my young mind perhaps 75 years ago, all I could think of was that Taps sounded like death, and no young boy or girl wants to be reminded of the final act in life. Mother understood and promised there were many, many years ahead for me. I would live to be as old as classmate Dexter Dumas’ great uncle, who, mounted on a horse from his farm, always led the parade in his colorful Teddy Roosevelt Rough Riders uniform.

At my age, the promises of mothers and teachers were not to be doubted; you could count on them. I was somewhat relieved, though my fascination with the mournful call of Taps was not fully abated.

Let the Tears Fall

During my service with the Navy Seabees during World War II, we went to bed when Taps was played. Lights out. Tomorrow is another day. But when it’s Taps at memorial and funeral services or following the firearms salutes at the end of parades, there is a different impact. There will be no another day, no tomorrow.

While I served with the Seabees, Henry Beckwith, my best friend in high school, died when his Navy plane went down over Ireland. He had no tomorrows. His future was gone at age 19. He was a true hero, one of millions to sacrifice their lives when called to wars by their beloved country. For them, freedom wasn’t free.

In my midlife years, at any ceremonies honoring veterans, the bugler’s call of Taps brought the embarrassment of tears. I couldn’t help but think of Henry Beckwith and all the others who made the supreme sacrifice long before they had any of the chances for a meaningful life that I had. Why them, how come not me?

Then one day — and I can’t remember exactly when — I no longer hid the tears. What better way could I, among the living, express my feeling of loss and gratitude for those among the dead?

Have We Forgotten?

As this Memorial Day approaches, I lament how times have changed since I was a kid and the occasion was solemn, even sacred. Foremost it was a day to honor the dead who served. Every one turned out for the parade and the ceremonies. Much of that changed in 1971, when Congress mandated the day be made into a three-day federal weekend holiday, which has diluted the real meaning of the Decoration Day of my early years.

Now we have the sacred day sandwiched into three days of no work, just fun and frolic. To toss the dogs a bone, there’s the National Moment of Remembrance, a resolution passed in 2000 asking that at 3pm local time, all Americans “voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a Moment of Remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to Taps.”

Pausing for a moment from whatever one is doing to honor those who gave their lives for us! A fine thank you, indeed.

What ever happened to the sentiment behind the words Mona Michael penned —

We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.

Enough said.