Sunday, May 27, 2012

Decoration Day? (Rethinking the Three-Day Weekend)

Memorial Day Weekend begins on Friday, May 25, 2012, as I sit in the stands overlooking the parade ground at the National Infantry Museum.  Summer is an early guest, and Ft. Benning, Georgia swelters in a still afternoon-ish heat.  Two companies of new Infantry face us, serious, disciplined, and weary.  On their shoulders they wear blue infantry cords just placed on Thursday by family members or superiors.  Traces of colored smoke hang in the windless air, and our ears ring with the echoes of the simulated rifle fire used to herald the advancement of our newest troops:  our sons, brothers, and husbands.

Ceremonies complete, we greet graduated Infantrymen, load duffels into trunks, and take pictures.  The collage of white shirts, blue pants, and black berets sharpens into close-ups of young men with fresh haircuts, smiles of relief, and tired eyes.  My Soldier dozes in the car on the ride home.  He arrives at the front door, lets himself in, greets the dogs who are unsure at first and then elated.  He drops bundles of gear in his old room and finds some civvies to wear.  He connects with former associates and makes plans.  He is up to no good!  He is my infuriating adolescent again--no.  Not really.

I sadly resist the reflex to tense my shoulders, sigh, ask questions, give reminders.  That time, clearly, is past.  This unseasoned Soldier can plan anything, go anywhere, talk to anyone until the date on his orders.  Then he will show up at the next post, focused, without questions, without nonsense.  He is a detail in a much bigger picture, a panoramic, cinematic picture, much of which he is unaware of and some of which only he and his comrades will see.  As I turn him loose to take his place in that picture, I visualize other details.

ca. 1958--I am in elementary school.  I know nothing about the twentieth century's headlong race into wars that began when my grandfather was a baby.  Yet I know that the U.S. and its citizens are winners somehow.  I also know that somewhere on the globe is a place called Korea.  Some of my friends' daddies and big brothers were there.  It isn't anyplace you would want to be, and they are glad that their dads or brothers are home.

ca. 1962--A magazine called LOOK comes to our house.  There are color photographs of some Soldiers traipsing through lush, watery grasses.  They are wearing Green Berets.  I hear the word Viet Nam  for the first time.  

1968--People all over the United States are crying out for peace.  Most of them are only a little older than I am.  Many of them are 18 and eligible for the draft.  Many of them do not want to go.

1971-74--It's "Vietnamization" now and "Peace with Honor."  We're a resentful, confused nation.  We don't notice the Viet Nam veterans arriving home singly to hostile greetings at airports.  But they notice us, and their anger and bewilderment wounds them anew.  (It wounds them still.)

1990--A dictator named Saddam Hussein tries to overrun Kuwait.  President George H. Bush initiates Desert Shield and later, Desert Storm.  National Guard units from all over the U.S. roll out.  They are probably surprised by this.  (I wonder now if they wondered then whether or not they were ready.)  Some of the same citizens that angrily denounced the Viet Nam vets tie yellow ribbons onto everything in sight.  Patriotism surges with a new-found "Support Our Troops" mentality.  We watch with renewed self-assurance and satisfaction as our PATRIOT missiles pick off Iraqi Scuds with the precision of the video games we are learning to play so well.

1991--My son, Seth, is born.

09/11/2001--The United States is attacked.

The canvas bursts here, and our frightened present emerges.  Under President George W. Bush, we find ourselves at war with Terrorism.  We go to Afghanistan, launching the world's longest ongoing manhunt.  (It continues after we get our man.)  We invade Iraq, sending Soldiers on a search-and-destroy foray, seeking the elusive Weapons of Mass Destruction.  Korea heats up and cools down and heats up and cools down.  Stateside, we support our troops.  We wear "red on Fridays 'til they all come home."  We burn blue candles.  We Adopt a Sailor.  Our shoulders drop with fatigue, and we shake our heads.  We are going to be in Afghanistan another two years.

This is not a history lesson, although we could use one--a lesson, that is.  Of pride, there is plenty.  My Soldier  wears two ribbons right now.  One is for completing his Infantry training.  The other is for volunteering to serve in a time of war, a symbol of pride, but not of learning.  Tomorrow is the observance of Memorial Day in the United States.  The President will visit The Wall, an overdue thank-you for Viet Nam vets.  Speeches will be made and applauded.  Flags will fly at half-staff.  Moments of silence will be observed.  All of it will be fitting and dignified and probably forgotten by sunset along with whatever barbecue is leftover.

Me?  I live in a strange culture.  I belong to a sorority of sometimes weepy Navy moms who are always a bit wary because they are never sure exactly where their deployed Sailors are.  I also belong to a sorority of Army moms who do not cry at all.  They just grit their teeth and say to one another, "Army strong, Mom.  Your Soldier needs you to be strong . . . "  Most of them DO know where their Soldiers are, and it scares them.  I haven't tied yellow ribbons onto trees or mailboxes--yet.  I haven't made a habit of wearing "Red on Fridays 'til they all come home"--yet.  My sons are not deployed--yet.

I burn blue candles.  I learned of the tradition from Navy moms marking "Blue Candle Events" such as national holidays or the deployments of ships.  I have adapted the tradition over the last few months.  On Armed Services Day, I burned two blue candles--one for my two active-duty children, one for all of yours.  Tomorrow I will light them again.  There will be one blue candle for all Fallen Heroes.  There will be a second blue candle for all Infantry.

This day was called Decoration Day in its early history.  I wonder if we have forgotten to decorate the graves of the Fallen in our haste to wear red for the living?  Or maybe we should return to a strict May 30th observance of Memorial Day so we're more likely to think of our direction than to cook out.  In the meantime, congratulations, Seth, on your graduation.  Thank you, Alpha Company, 2-19, for your willingness to serve.  And to all of us, a solemn, peaceful, and yes, happy Memorial Day.