A Bazooka Joe wrapper, a pair of black lace panties, a letter from President Ronald Reagan, a letterman’s jacket, a six-pack of beer with one missing, a high-heeled shoe and the Rolling Stone’s album Beggars Banquet: all things that have been among the nearly half a million mementos left at the Vietnam Memorial. All sacred offerings left by a friend, a lover, a parent, a president or a soldier who “shed blood in the same mud” with the names that mark the black stonewall.
So what is it, a soldier thinks of in the field? The hot-rod that they’re going to build, their motorcycle, Oak St. Beach, a cheesy beef with giardiniera, bikinis and the girls that fill them, the New York Yankees, the Chicago Bears. And when they’re alone in their head they think of God, of redemption, of the afterlife but mostly of their family.
When they’re dying, it’s always their family. I talked to a man once who as a 19 year old stormed the beaches of Normandy. He wasn’t hunting German soldiers though; he was gathering Americans. His job was to sweep the beaches of the dead and he said that those that had not died instantly were almost always holding a picture of their family, their sweetheart or a crucifix or rosary. The dying that hadn’t expired yet would often call out to their mother or, the few that were married, to their wife.
They died thinking of loved ones as they remembered them in their most intimate moments – the comforting smile of their mother, the embrace of their lover, having a catch with dad in the yard, showing a little sister how to bait a hook.
More than a few Generals have described the formula of war as 95% sheer boredom and 5% abject terror. When a serviceman is deployed all they think about is home. There isn’t one of them who wouldn’t rather be with wife, kids, parents or sweethearts. Not a one who wouldn’t rather be tearing out a carburetor with his crew or going to a movie with his girl than showering in 120-degree heat with wet-wipes and dodging IED’s. But they go anyway, and they fight anyway, and some die along the way.
HOW TO REMEMBER THE FALLEN:
“Let us, then, at the time appointed gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with the choicest flowers of spring-time; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us a sacred charge upon a nation’s gratitude, the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.”
– Memorial Day order from May 5, 1868 by General John Logan who called on the nation to decorate the graves of soldiers and sailors and to remember their surviving families.
I am not one to judge how others grieve or how others remember but I really don’t think there is only one way. Many times, I’ve heard or seen people chide those who just take Memorial Day weekend as a vacation period without acknowledging at all the sacrifices of better men and women who paid for our chance to suntan, burn some brats on the grill or throw back a cold beer. I know there are some who push a morbid stoicism on Memorial Day, but I’m not one for sackcloth and ashes. To hell with that, we’re Americans! We’re big, we’re brash and we can multi-task.
I say fly the flag to the top, salute, pray and praise and then party. Celebrate life, family, pulled pork and cold Budweiser. Relish all those things that our fathers and brothers wished they were doing when they were tending their trench foot and eating MRE’s.
Live to the hilt all those moments that they thought fondly of in their months of boredom. Live the life that they sacrificed and desired in their flashes of terror. Make their dreams our reality.