What’s an appropriate way to honor our soldiers? Hint: It doesn’t necessarily involve a barbecue or mall sales.
Like many New Jersey towns and villages, mine schedules two big events for Memorial Day. One is a large march that includes military officers and veterans, township officials, the high school marching band, boy and girl scouts, and others. The other is a charity rubber duck race in the local stream. Guess which gets more public attention year after year?
So far as I can tell, rubber duckies are unrelated to fallen U.S. soldiers, unless Sesame Street’s Ernie is a veteran. But equally unrelated —- yet getting even more attention —- are barbecues, beach trips, and fabulous Memorial Day sales at the mall. Is it any surprise we’ve lost touch with what we’re memorializing? In holiday terms, someone took the G.I. Joe out of Memorial Day.
My late Grandpa Ruby used to proudly show off the muscles he earned schlepping a bazooka around Germany in World War II and talk of a Nazi luger he “picked up” in his travels. My grandmother made him get rid of it, though that was way before eBay.
As I imagine my grandfather’s experience, I fill in the blanks with scenes from Saving Private Ryan. It’s the closest thing I have to a personal association with war; my children are even less connected. My son’s main point of reference for armed battle involves light sabers and blasters more than AK-47s and mortars. My girls are oblivious to violent conflict except as it pertains to turns on the computer.
But living, breathing images of the military are all around us; at least, all around me. In New York City’s Penn Station you’ll find as many soldiers as doughnut stores — and there are a lot of doughnut stores. Armed to the teeth, these heroes are largely relegated to helping tourists find their way to a bathroom or the closest ATM. But I’m inclined to shake their hands, and pat them on the back. My personal forfeits on behalf of our freedom seem puny by comparison, so I can withstand a little stranger-anxiety in order to show appreciation on the one day it’s most appropriate.
Thinking much harder than I do about Memorial Day is Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye. Many people, including Senator Inouye, feel affixing the day to a weekend opens it up to fierce attack by consumerism and dilutes its true meaning. So, for decades, Inouye has been trying to pass a bill in the Senate that would tie Memorial Day to May 30 instead of to the last Monday in May, as was mandated in the National Holiday Act of 1971. (Yes, that was the question you flubbed on your AP History exam). Naturally, it’s the guy from Hawaii who thinks nobody needs another three-day weekend.
We’ve indeed strayed far from Memorial Day’s point, but eliminating a cherished three-day weekend will not bring us any closer. Nor will clogging our airwaves with mind-numbing political punditry. A soldier’s mission may be up for debate, but his sacrifice is unimpeachable.
What Memorial Day needs is just a better ratio of reverence to revelry. It doesn’t take much. A letter. A wish. A handshake or pat on the back.
So go ahead and light the grill, cheer on those ducks, and tackle the mall. But also spend a moment or two thinking about those who willingly put themselves in harm’s way so that you and I may never have to.