It’s Memorial Day.
There will be no days off. No brats fired up on the barbecue. No sales celebrating the rise of summer. No PseudoPatriotic gestures to prove who’s a bigger patriot. And for fuck’s sake, there will be no thanking living, breathing veterans for their service.
Not in this house!
Memorial Day is Not About Veterans
Monique works as a bakery coordinator at a Wegmans here near Buffalo. Because Monique is a veteran, the bakery manager put her in charge of establishing the decorations for the cakes, cookies, and baked goods for Memorial Day.
Excited at the opportunity, Monique started researching and practicing designs involving poppies and other symbols of the day. The red poppy is a flower of remembrance. National Poppy Day happens immediately before Memorial Day, and was established as part of that custom of remembering the fallen.
Monique prepared an arrangement of cupcakes, cakes, and cookies, each beautiful and enticing at the same time. They were the kind of treats worthy of leaving on the graves of fallen heroes, an offering to our lost ancestors. She showed them to her manager, who kindly thanked her for her service and asked for something more patriotic.
If you truly want to irritate a veteran, run around thanking everyone for their service on Memorial Day.
Military folks are all about our honors. We’re all about our customs and courtesies. And we have a plethora of them. One of the most distinguishing features of a veteran is that they, unlike many civilian Americans, don’t treat Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Veterans Day as the same holiday.
Memorial Day is About Remembering
Memorial Day. Memory. Jesus Christ, it’s in the title.
As veterans, Memorial Day is the day we think about the folks who served and are no longer with us. We sometimes gather with other veterans. We sometimes gather at parades and cemeteries. We sometimes dust off that long-retired uniform and wear them proudly in parades.
But those parades are not for us.
Those honors are not for us. That spectacle is not about us. Memorial Day is to honor folks who served who didn’t make it back. It is for those who served and took their own lives because the pressure, and the pay, and the things they witnessed were too much. And for me, it is about those veterans, discharged and retired, who are no longer with us.
Remembering the Dead
Look, I get it. A day of thinking about death doesn’t seem as exciting as a mattress sale. No one wants to sit around being morbid and glum all day. I can’t speak for the dead, but most of the military folks I know would agree with you.
My celebration of Memorial Day is somewhat like a jazz funeral.
It begins as a dirge as you approach at the pace of St. James Infirmary. And it ends in celebration.
I think about your friendships.
No. More than friendships.
I think about how Fred Champlain waded through waist-high water with me through the streets of Abilene. Well, for me, at six-five, it was waste high. For Fred, it was up to his chest.
We were helping the residents of Abilene escape the flood that came out of nowhere in July of 2002. The currents were pulling us every which way. So much so we had to carry the little ones to get them to the truck.
Still, many of the residents were convinced they could wait it out, despite water seeping through their front door. I think my tall stature fooled them. Some of them pointed at my waist to prove that the water was coming down, not acknowledging Fred treading water to stay upright.
I think about Fred.
And I think about Caleb Bennett, who everyone thought wouldn’t last, who everyone treated like he wouldn’t last. Who rose to sew on Staff, Tech, and Master Sergeant stripes, despite everyone telling him he wouldn’t, couldn’t, can’t. (An experience I shared to a lesser extent).
In the end, they turned out to be right. He took his own life at 31. I think the voices of doubt got to him.
I think they get to all of us. The doubt just echoes in.
I think about Caleb.
And I think about Carl Rotella, my father-in-law. I think about thousands of veterans like him who served their country, faced the impossible, moved mountains, and touched the sky. I remember how they struggled outside of the military. For dignity and identity that transcended a military uniform. For some integrity. For some sense of continued self-worth that didn’t feel like you were reliving your football glory years. To not having every half-wit politician with a peripheral understanding of patriotism use you as a prop and fuck you with a flag they never bled or even served a moment for.
I want to leave a poppy-decorated cookie on your tombstone, Carl. I think you’ve had enough of flags.
I think about Carl.
And I think about Norma and all the folks I served with who are no longer with us. I think about lives that have touched us, influenced us, made us stronger, and made us want to be better. I remember them, and I feel everything – joy, pride, doubt, anger.
The joy of watching Fred play lightsabers with your then five-year-old son.
The pride of being part of something more important than ourselves with them.
The doubt that folks will ever remember and honor them.
The anger that a half-assed concept of “freedom” amounts to how many hot dogs we can choke down before the cornhole tournament begins. (Don’t at me. I didn’t name the game.)
I remember and I feel. And then I drink to the fallen.
To the Fallen – Ways to Remember on Memorial Day
It’s not all doom and gloom, and I don’t believe there isn’t a single soul who sacrificed their lives who would want it to be. It’s a heavy day, and it should be. Reverence and respect are about celebration, not mourning. In that spirit, and the spirit of the jazz funeral, I move from remembrance and loss to hope, gratitude, and celebration. We kick hard from a crawling St. James to a peppery rendition of When the Saints.
Not everyone in the military drinks. But it’s rare. Most of us drink like we might die young. That’s because many of us do die young.
So, every year, Monique and I drink to the fallen.
It doesn’t matter what you’re drink of choice is. My buddy, Jared, used to toast with Apple Pucker. The military (or at least the Air Force … and the Navy. Definitely the Navy.) is filled with all sorts of weirdos. Don’t let anybody convince you differently, or I’ll introduce you to my friend, Puck.
Anyway. I digress.
Raise a glass to the fallen. I always imagine they are standing with me when I do. And, I always pour them a round.
Okay. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know. I’m a big nerd. But my love of Firefly has a lot to do with Zoe and Malcolm, and no episode speaks to remembrance like The Message. And yeah, I get that it ends on kind of a downer. And sure, I’m a sucker for that bit about “when you cannot crawl, you find someone to carry you.”
Of course it’s all that.
But the best part of the whole episode is when Malcolm and Zoe sit around and swap stories about times with Tracey. They laugh, and they pass on his legacy to the rest of the crew. If you’re looking for a fun and exciting primer on how to remember folks who served and what it means to serve, this episode is worth watching.
When you’re on the move, on the run, on the clock, and always at a moment’s notice, games with complicated setups like role-playing games are out. Games that run long, like Monopoly, are out.
In the military, you play cards. They’re portable, and everyone knows how to play something. Even if you didn’t, you could learn most games in a hand or two, and you had a long but quiet twelve-hour shift to figure it out.
While the rules changed from base to base and even house to house, the game was typically Spades. Everyone played spades. EVERYONE. There wasn’t a base that I went to that we didn’t end up playing spades. Not a TDY (temporary duty, for you civvies) that didn’t involve a deck of cards and you arguing with your partner about overbooks.
Okay. Yes, And Barbecue.
I’m from Central New York. I live in Western, NY. But I don’t barbecue like a New Yorker. No charcoal and chicken that tastes like it’s been marinating in lighter fluid. That’s because I learned to barbecue in the military. And when you learn to barbecue in Guam and Texas, you don’t cook brisket like a New Yorker ever again.
Food is big in the military. And because of the diversity of folks who served, there was quite a selection. If you were willing to let your palate break new ground, you could sample Korean, Soul, Cajun, Cuban, Mexican, and Filipino, all with a side of potato salad.
But it wasn’t about the food. It was about the people who shared it. You talked to folks about the food you shared. We rambled excitedly about traditions we brought from home. You told stories learned about each other’s lives.
Monique and I are pretty solitary, so we don’t always do BBQ. But we still share a meal, and we swap stories to remember the folks who gave their lives.
Happy Memorial Day?
I think the conflict in the idea of “Happy Memorial Day” is at the crux of the disconnection from the holiday. “Happy” is not the tone for a day of remembrance. It doesn’t have to be tears and sorrow, but maybe we can skip the great iPhone deal and try to focus on what the day is about.
I think, too, that when you have served, you are more likely to know someone who died in service than most folks are likely to know anyone who died at all. You spend all day thinking about folks you respected and admired, and someone comes along and whips a “Thank you for your Service” so they can feel proud they remembered to thanks someone they barely know and have little interest in. And you wish you could send those thanks where they belong.
Some folks honor people who salute, without honoring what they’re saluting.
Thank you to all my brothers and sisters in the U.S. Armed Forces who did not make it home or are no longer with us. I miss you all and take every one of you with me. For the rest of you, if you know someone who died in the service of their country – I don’t even mean military service – take a moment today to remember them. If you don’t know someone, chuck a brat in any direction, and you’re likely to hit a vet. Ask them about people they know who have died. You’re bound to hear some great stories.