A series of short personal reflections on the multiple meanings of Memorial Day.
Memorial Day, like Christmas, is one of those holidays that has two versions, the doctrinal and the observed. Christmas is, in theory, a religious holiday, and many people do observe it as such. Others eschew the religious trappings entirely and just enjoy gifts, partying, and time with loved ones. A lot of folks do both, in their own way.
Memorial Day has a similar nature. It is, officially, a solemn holiday and a time to reflect respectfully on the countless war dead our nation has accumulated. It is also a three-day weekend and the unofficial start of summer, meaning our somber reflection tends to be tempered with an awful lot of barbecues and beach trips. This curiously divided nature is worth discussion, so we asked an awful lot of men we know to answer this question:
“What does Memorial Day make you think of?”
Memorial Day makes me think of my freshman year in high school. Apparently I was the best trumpet player in my class, which meant I had to play “Taps” on the float, with all of the town in attendance. Well, I got nervous, totally butchered the song, but the crowd still applauded. Even though I was terrible, they applauded for all of the important Americans who helped make the country what it is today. And I sure wasn’t one of them that day.
—Tommy Riles, comedian, LifeofDad.com
Folly. Waste. Stupidity. On a scale so massive we dare not think about the lives lost, the cost, the karma. Since World War II, our empire has fought pointless war after pointless war, useful only to the usual suspects. Vietnam: 58,272 American soldiers dead, 303,000 wounded. (2 million Vietnamese civilians killed, but they don’t matter to us.) Afghanistan: 2,000 American soldiers killed. (13,000+ Afghani civilians killed, but they don’t matter to us.) Iraq: 4,408 American soldiers killed, 32,000 wounded. (As many as 1 million civilians killed, but they don’t matter to us.)
—Jesse Kornbluth, CEO, HeadButler
Memorial Day used to remind me of “old timers” wearing undersized, vintage military uniforms, with the graying men huddled around the American Legion and sharing memories around checkered paper tablecloths. And then my West Point classmate and boyhood friend, Stephen Reich, died in Afghanistan several years back and I then saw Memorial Day through the lens of a much more profound understanding and appreciation. A much fuller expression of that appreciation was shared a few years back where Stephen and I once went to high school. I have no doubt that the students that day saw an “old timer” – all of a sudden – in their midst.
—Drew Bartkiewicz, founder @lettrs, West Point ’89, Gulf War ’91
Memorial Day …
What do i think of? I think of The White Horse Tavern, New York City, 1990. I had just – okay, not just, like a few months earlier – broken up with a bad fucking boyfriend. Bad in the sense that he stomped on my heart, crushed it, and then handed it back to me and I said, “Okay, enough, we’re over, like fucking done.” So there I was, sitting at the White Horse bar, minding my own business, nursing a gin and tonic, and a guy slides up, a real kinda sexy ‘bad-boy’ guy from Michigan, orders a beer, turns to me and says, “Hey, so, what’s there to do in New York City on a long weekend?” We had sex. Lots of sex. Standing up, lying down, in the back of a cab. He said he’d call me. He called five months later, Labor Day weekend. He asked me what I was doing for the weekend, if I had plans. I told him I was writing a movie about a guy who was trying to get his wife remarried so he didn’t have to pay her any more alimony. He asked if he could see me. I told him to go fuck himself. The movie got made. I bought myself an apartment. I met and married the best guy in the world. Memorial Day… makes me think of three night stands, and KY jelly, and cold beer and the good men and the good women who sacrifice their sex lives for their country.
—Amy Ferris, Author, Screenwriter, Playwright
Ignorance, death, and the belief in war. There is no honor in serving death and separation. We need to become willing to unite and believe only is life and love.
—Brad Oliphant, photographer
George Patton. He was an asshole but we needed him on that wall.
—Todd Dagres, Spark Capital
Makes me think I can start wearing linen and white without my brother’s mother-in-law giving me the stink-eye…even though it won’t be warm enough to swim here for another eight weeks.
—Jonathan Soroff, columnist, Improper Bostonian, founder It’s My Life, Get Your Own
I don’t think about Memorial Day except when it is actually on the day and I might be standing in front of a veteran or active duty soldier. Then, I try to figure out why they joined the military–did they want a free ride for school, etc. If they served, I try to figure out how dangerous a job they had. If they were pumping gas on a base in Alabama, I don’t really consider that memorable. If they were something really macho like a Navy SEAL or something fancy, then I make a comment about how that is tough work. I might also say I’m glad I pay taxes to support that kind of work and sacrifice. It sounds good.
Really, I’m more interested in how I am perceived by the veterans than I really care about them. Intellectually, I know their work is important and full of sacrifice, but I’m too busy thinking about my internet connection and what bad food I’m going to eat next to see any connection between what veterans did and my daily life.
I know, I’m an asshole.
—Ronald Cowie, photographer
I always think of my Dad, now 89, then 21, who half-starved, (6 feet tall but weighing about 108 pounds) as he escaped his German captors who were moving (if you want to call a forced march “moving”) Dad and 99 others to another POW camp. Dad was in Stalaag 3; the camp depicted in the movie “The Great Escape” and was so starved that during his week on the lam before he found the allies, he found a potato patch and ate raw potatoes. When rescued and sent to the infirmary for a check-up, it was discovered he’d gained eight pounds. Dad once told me all the old prisoners were allowed to go to the main gate to see the “new” guys. He ran into two guys he went to high school with. This prompted me to yell, ”Oh my God; worst High School Reunion EVER!” Most sincerely,
—Bonnie Russell, Media Relations
This Memorial Day, as we honor the brave men and women who gave their lives to protect us, let us not overlook the brave boys and girls who die a thousand little deaths waiting for their daddies and mommies to come home. Military kids serve their country, too – and they pay a price every day of their childhoods. They are the littlest soldiers. Remember them. Thank them. Hug them.
—BJ Gallagher, author
Not just on Memorial Day, but more on that day than others, I think about all of my family before me who served in the armed forces, my son who currently serves in the navy, and every one of the veterans in unmarked graves, god rest their souls. Peace,
— Brian Daley, President, FloridaMilitaryMan.com
For some reason, Memorial Day always reminds me of seeing the Allman Bros. at an outdoor amphitheater outside of Ann Arbor, MI, and that would be the official kick-off of summer…
—Roy Y. Liu
Before I volunteered working with Veterans, Memorial Day was the weekend that we got off, and oh yes, remembering the Vets. NOW, it is a time dedicated to remembering the service these men and women have given and honor them and I feel it in my heart!
— Antonia Nelson
I always think of the wonderful people I have known along the way that are no longer here to enjoy, to say thank you to and to tell them I love them. They all helped shape my life through those start of summer picnics, encouragement or “corrective action” when either was necessary and by just being friends and family. Most have served this great country in a multitude of ways and deserve to be remembered and respected in every way.
—James L. Melin, Brig Gen, USAFR (Retired)
I believe the true purpose of Memorial Day should be for the recognition of the men and women, both living and dead, who served this country to ensure we have the lives and freedoms that exist today. Unfortunately, I believe it’s become just an excuse for a three day week-end and a barbecue.