When the '60s arrived, my brother and I were more than ready to shed our old clothes and embrace bell-bottoms, long hair and the Doors. My father was still clinging to his accustomed routine of squeezing a dollop of Wildroot into the palm of his left hand and easing it into his hair with his right. The ad men called it "greasy kids' stuff," so we jumped on the bandwagon and started urging our father to dump the Crisco and get with the program. Reluctantly, mid-60s, he bent to our times and stopped lubing his graying hair, and would instead spritz it with a light mist of AquaNet.
Other garments and grooming aids were not so easily abandoned. For example, the "Members Only" windbreaker, popular in the '70s, was an item of clothing he refused to give up. I vaguely remember a misguided madras jacket I tried to foist off on him. I never saw him wear it, but found it when I was cleaning out his condo after his death.
In 2002, Memorial Day was shrouded in a chilly fog. I was walking the dogs, when I remembered this was a special day. I put the dogs back in the house, grabbed some coffee and walked back over to the ceremony. It was not the sunny, welcoming day one requires of a holiday that traditionally welcomes the summer. As I approached the service, I saw men of a certain age, World War II veterans, slowly making their way along in their "Members Only" jackets, just like my father's.
There were so many men there that day, WWII vets who had replaced their armed services uniforms with a different kind of uniform: a 25-year-old windbreaker, in khaki, pastel yellow or baby blue. Their generation had known sacrifice, "making do" and going without. I finally understood my father's frugality and his reasons for not giving up a "perfectly good jacket."
My father never spoke of his wartime experiences—not because they were so horrific, but because they were anything but. He was a musician in the Navy band, stationed in Recife, Brazil, where Germans were few and the tropical distractions many. He had left Duke University, impulsively enlisting in the Navy, a decision he would rue until the day he died. His twin brother Henry, upon hearing his beloved other half had enlisted, dashed to the recruiting office and joined the Army. He didn't have my father's gift for music, so he was destined for the D-Day battle that killed him in Anzio, Italy. My father never forgave himself, for he knew Henry had not been a rash young man, and would never have joined up if his twin hadn't done so first.
Today's holiday, Memorial Day, and was initially a tradition of placing wreaths on and decorating the graves of Confederate soldiers after the Civil War. It was declared a holiday on May 30, 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of both Confederate and Union soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. It wasn't until 1967 that Decoration Day became Memorial Day. In 1971, the holiday moved from May 30 to the last Monday in May, thus creating a three-day weekend that became the unofficial start of summer, a bonanza for bargain hunters and an opportunity to forget the quiet gratitude and remembrance the holiday was born from.
The transformation of the commemorative and solemn holiday into a three-day bacchanal of beach, beer and buying meant many towns abandoned any kind of ceremony. The rumblings of the band getting ready to play never fails to stir me to my soul, as I think of my father's generation and all the young men and women who came afterward, fighting for invisible ideals we all take for granted.
I know I've said it before, but I truly believe every American should be forced to live in an underdeveloped country in order to truly appreciate the lives we live here in the States. I lived in Brazil for a year with my mother's family, and although it was a wonderful experience, I chafed at my lack of freedom. There were so many things I was not allowed to do as a young woman, things I did automatically back home. My uncles wouldn't let me drive at night, nor could I impulsively go to the movies in order to immerse myself in English. These examples may seem inconsequential, but to me they were freedoms I enjoyed without thinking back in the U.S., and I missed them terribly.
When I returned to the States, I fell back into old freedoms, doing what I wanted whenever the mood struck me, my vow to always honor the liberties life in the U.S. afforded me now forgotten. Until, that is, a chance encounter at the Acme on Lenola Road jolted me back to an appreciation I now keep with me always.
A WWII veteran was selling paper poppies in front of the store. Most people were ignoring him, but he had a kind smile on his face and a ready "hiya" for all. I approached him with a dollar, intending to grab and go, not wishing to converse or engage in any way. As the exchange was made, he asked me if I knew what the poppy stood for. "Here we go," I grumbled to myself, not wanting to linger.
"They thought there'd never be a war as brutal as the first World War—'The War to End all Wars,' it was called. Turns out they were all just as bad," he said, shaking his head. "Anyway, there's a poem that explains the poppy thing."
He cleared his throat and began to recite: 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, But lends a lustre to the red, Of the flower that blooms above the dead, In Flanders Fields.
This Memorial Day, , our differences should be set aside, our gratitude a tidal wave of "thank you"s. We live in the greatest country in the world, with men and women who willingly go into battle for us. As Kate Smith would sing, "God Bless America!"