Think back over the years as to how Memorial Day has changed. When I was a kid, there was a national holiday at the end of May. We called it Decoration Day. It didn't matter what day of the week it came, it was still a national holiday. Schools were closed, people were off work, farmers left their fields. We all joined in the celebration.
Decoration Day heralded the beginning of summer. Forget the calendar, summer ran from Decoration Day to Labor Day. School had closed a few days before. Pools were opened officially for the summer. Swimming lessons began. The water was cold, but that didn't matter. Bible school was only a few days away. And families were planning summer vacation trips.
On Decoration Day, people gathered in town, on and near the public square. We celebrated. It was something like a public picnic, a carnival of sorts with local concessions. Ball tosses, burlap bag races, three-legged races, candied apples, popcorn, ice cream cones and popsicles were the order of the day.
There were baking contests, barbecue cook-offs, lemonade stands and homemade desserts. And there was usually some hometown music here and about. It was a fun time. It was a community event. It was a celebration for men, women, boys and girls, old folks, a celebration for all.
And mostly, it was an honoring, a remembrance of the veterans and everyone who had served or was serving in the U.S. Military. For those who had served and their family and friends, it was a day filled with memories. We honored soldiers who had died, those who were wounded, those who made it through two World Wars intact. Not only a celebration, it was a sober, hallowing experience.
A parade was held in late morning, led by a military honor guard, followed by regiments, squads, companies, all in uniform. There were marching bands, marching to John Phillip Sousa and other patriotic works. The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts were near the front, followed by decorated bicycles, floats, and finally the policemen and sheriffs. Fire trucks, sirens howling, brought up the rear.
The parade started near the school and went through the center of town holding up traffic for miles. There were no interstates then. And as the parade rounded the square heading up that long, long hill, the rest of town joined in. Sirens stopped. Bands fell silent. All you heard were footfalls and drum cadences.
At the top of the hill, the soldiers broke off to the right, to the destination, to the final resting place, a grave of a veteran who lost his life, gave his all so that we might live our way of life in freedom. The color guard pivoted. Flags were lowered, rifles were raised, and under the direction of an officer, seven men fired. A volley of shots rang out. Load, lock, fire! Load, lock, fire! Load, lock, fire! A twenty-one gun sulute.
A bugler nearby sounded Taps. And in the distance just over the hill, another answered. In solemn quietude, the crowd dispersed. Each was in own thoughts, own memories, own sadness.
Back downtown and the celebration resumed. There were a lot of things to celebrate. But perhaps the greatest celebration of all was in the park, the honoring, the decorating, the praising our fallen men, our heroes.
Things have changed. Decoration Day is now Memorial Day and that's now celebrated on a Monday sometime near the end of May rather than on Decoration Day. The celebration in the town square has all but disappeared as has the hometown parade. And the tribute, the celebration of the heritage left us by those who served in the military forces is rapidly becoming a memory of a generation that is passing on.
Perhaps we have done a disservice to our veterans, to our service people, to our communities, to ourselves. This special day is now diluted, a long weekend, our thoughts leaving the purpose and drifting off to other uses, to trips away from our community, our heroes, our center, our focus.
This article is being published after Memorial Day, but Decoration Day has yet to come. Late in the morning of May 30 take a few moments to give special tribute to those Americans who have served and are now serving so that we may live our way of life in freedom.
Till next time...