Monday, May 28, 2012

Remembrance of Things Past

Crowds at a Cemetery on Decoration Day

Today is Memorial Day in the United States, which means the "unofficial" start of summer with its fun and fancy free times.

Originally called "Decoration Day," according to my internet sources, the tradition had its birth after the Civil War when nice ladies would go decorate the graves of fallen soldiers (Some say Southern. Some say Northern. The fact is: a lot of people died and needed remembering). The tradition caught on, and on an appointed day, varying sometimes by city, the whole town would meet up at the cemetery. Graves would get decorated, people would have a picnic or a potluck among the headstones, and a nice time was had by all.

Later, the holiday was made official and meant as a remembrance for all those who died at war. And even later, it became a day for remembering the dead in general.

Now, for a lot of people, our American version of Día de los Muertos just means a day off work, and an excuse to drink a little more beer than usual and eat things cooked on a grill while laughing with each other. Most of us have kept the picnic aspect but have done away with the whole depressing memorial thing. Why not? It's nice not having to get all remembery about sad things.

Me, Dad & Brother --1978
My dad loves Memorial Day. He's a Vietnam vet, and every year he goes to Monument Park in the small town that he lives in and watches the parade. Then he calls me up and tells me about it in great detail, and I get it all mixed up with Veteran's Day, which seems to be comprised of the same people just celebrating those who lived through wars instead of dying.

I don't think my dad has missed this parade many times in his life, maybe just when he was in Vietnam walking the thin line between being one who would get a day to be remembered or a day to be celebrated. Before the war, he would have gone out of a sense of patriotism, and after, maybe out of a sense of entitlement, and now, maybe out of obligation.

Or, maybe I'm just reading into it, maybe he just likes to go to parades. I remember going to a succession of patriotic parades when I was a kid, which is why I have trouble keeping them all straight.

Last year, my dad was in a pretty terrible accident. He lived, but he got all busted up, so he doesn't go much of anywhere these days. He mentioned that he might not be able to make it to the parade this year or to the park. I felt bad, but hey, there will be more parades, right? Then he told me that the reason he most likes to go isn't for the parade but because there is a Vietnam War memorial in the park. His buddy's name is on it. This guy died three weeks after being shipped off to war. My dad likes to go make sure his buddy gets remembered.

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington D.C., Credit: David Bjorgen
One of my most foundational memories is of visiting the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC with my dad. I was eight years old. It was spring, so everything was very green and alive. Then there was this stark wall stretching out for a long, long way, forever to a kid, really. There were just these names, and I knew they were people who died in the war my dad was in.

When we got to the wall, my dad went looking for the names of people he knew from back home or in the army, and he left me staring at this wall by myself. Some places people had put notes or pictures next to the names, and this made these dead people real to me. It was 1985, so the war had ended officially only about a decade before. There was still a lot of remembering to be done and peace to be made. It was a long, stupid and senseless war, and as is common in the course of human history, a lot of people needlessly died.

I don't want to put big, smart, existential concepts on my eight year old self; I wasn't some kid philosopher,  but I think I understood, even at that age, maybe especially at that age, just how messed up war was because I had to live with its reality every day of my life. My dad, who was never that stable to begin with, was mostly deaf from artillery fire, and he suffered from chronic, untreated PTSD, a condition that wasn't acknowledged by the military at that time or by most of the returned vets and their families. I think only now, after Iraq and Afghanistan are people really starting to recognize this as a common experience for men and women who have been to war. I hope, one day, it's also recognized as a condition that doesn't just affect the soldier, but the family and the community. My dad was in the Vietnam War, and I carry that war with me today.

While I was walking along the wall, I ran into these really tough biker looking types standing around and looking up at a name on the wall. One of them had a piece of paper and a pencil, and he asked if I would help him with something. I was kind of overwhelmed, so the normal admonition against strangers didn't mean much to me. I just nodded, and he shoved the paper and pencil in my hand and picked me up. I was suddenly face-to-face with the name they had been looking at.

I don't remember it, only that the man asked me to take an etching, so I set the paper against the wall, I scribbled until a name appeared in graphite. When I was done, the man put me on the ground again and took the etching from me. That was his buddy who died in the war. He and the other tough looking biker types thanked me, and this guy just held this etching in his hands, stared down at the name written there and cried.

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