Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day

First, a word from a veteran - me. Memorial Day is traditionally the start of summer, and many of us are thinking a lot more about what to barbecue than why we have the day off in the first place. Let me tell you two stories.

I used to volunteer for honor guard when I was stationed in Little Rock. Sometimes it meant we helped out at events, like directing pedestrian traffic at an air show (in a wool beret and high-top black combat boots in an Arkansas summer, thank you very much). But generally it meant folding the flag and doing the 21 gun salute at funerals. I saw a lot of 'em; old geezers who'd had their time, a young guy who died of a burst appendix in Germany and left a very pregnant widow, and everything in between. Usually I did the 21 gun salute, because it meant I was a good distance from the mourners (we shot three volleys of 7 blanks "over" the casket from 30 yards or so away). If I was too close, I'd start empathizing, then have trouble maintaining my stone-faced "military bearing." It also meant we got there early, so as to be in place when the hearse pulled up - so we had a lot of time to wander around and wait. And one day, as I was absently reading headstones in the veteran's cemetery in Little Rock, I came across a headstone for a woman who died at my age and at my rank.

It totally freaked me out, and gave me a lot to think about. I mean, I joined the service for a lot of stupid, idealistic reasons, lost a lot of my faith in them during basic training, and gained a piece of them back doing those honor guard assignments. Assisting at a funeral gave me a sense of service, of actually doing something meaningful (if purely symbolic). But it never occurred to me that I could actually sacrifice my health or life in the service of my country. You know how it is - when you're in your late teens and early twenties, you're bulletproof. I think a lot of enlistees feel that way, especially those who go in right out of high school and haven't really matured enough to figure out what their life is worth and what they're offering with that oath. But for all those who have figured it out and have pressed on anyway, who are doing their duty and their job, as dangerous as it may be, no matter what they think of the generals and politicians who play with their lives like a chess set - I think of them today. Just trying to do their best, in spite of everything going on, and hoping against hope that their service will bring something positive to the world.

Second story: Janie Makel. A MIA/POW bracelet is one of the few pieces of jewelery allowed with uniform, and I liked the idea of a constant reminder of those who had sacrificed everything. There are only a dozen or so women on the official MIA/POW list, last I checked, but when I sent my $7 in with my order, I specifically requested a woman for my bracelet. And I got Janie Makel. I wore it for years - still have it - and wondered how Janie Makel happened to go missing in South Viet Nam the year before I was born. I imagined her in different ways - a nurse perhaps, in the Viet Nam version of M*A*S*H? But with the wonder of the Internet, it finally occurred to me a few years ago to look her up. She wasn't a nurse - she was an infant, brought to Viet Nam by her missionary parents. I was furious! What parents in their right minds would endanger their child like that! It still leaves a raw sadness, as I think about parents sacrificing their children to their ideals. And so, on Memorial Day, I also remember those who did not knowingly accept their fate, but were sacrificed by the parents or commanding officers entrusted with their care. Whether too young, like Janie Makel, or too idealistic or stupid to understand the stakes, like many enlisted I have known, today is also a day to remember the sacrifices of the unwitting.

So enjoy your brat or burger, rehash the Indy race or get some yard work done - but spare a thought for those who will never do those things again.

Off the soap box now; thanks for your patience. I thought I'd also share a picture of the Pasque Flowers from my rock garden. They're pretty, but absolutely determined to spread and I have to rip them up like weeds to keep them under control. But in the sunshine, they always make me think of "pretty maids all in a row.

And finally, here's one of the things I finished this weekend: a shawl for the farmer's market. I started it Friday night, discovered a major mistake and ripped it back to about 1/4 of its size on Saturday night, and finished it just as Rick walked in the door on Sunday night. (I know, I'm still working on the anniversary shawl. But sometimes it's good to have brainless knitting for movies or whatever. I learned the hard way that I can't drink or watch anything with physical humor and still expect to work effectively on that orchid lace. It takes my full attention.

Enjoy your holiday.

2 comments:

AlisonH said...

Powerfully said. Thank you for this.

Christylea said...

I'll admit. I often forget why I get an extra day off from work. I'm sure I'm not the only one. Thanks for helping me remember.
Check out my facebook album for pics of the cemetary!