Editor’s Note: Below is another column in Steve Canipe’s series called Boomer Bytes. The column, as the title suggests, will focus on a variety of topics that may be of interest to baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964. But Canipe also hopes to start a conversation with younger generations, too. Check out an introduction and Canipe’s (first self-titled) column here.
- See second column – Are We Really Old? – here.
- See third column – Cars and More Cars – here.
- See fourth column – Getting Educated – here.
- See fifth column – Home Alone? – here.
- See sixth column – Death – here.
- See seventh column – They’re Playing Our Song – here.
- See eighth column – Driving: Knowing When To Quit – here.
- See ninth column – Hobbies: What’s Your Favorite – here.
- See 10th column – ‘The Last of Life, for which the First was Made’ – here.
- See 11th column – Volunteeering – here.
- See 12th column – Duck and Cover – here.
- See 13th column – Providing for the Future – here.
- See 14th column – Here We Go Wandering… – here.
- See 15th column – State of Schools – here.
- See 16th column – Our War – here.
- See 17th column – Behind the Curtain – here.
- See 18th column: Our Mind
- See 19th column: Change
By Steve Canipe
May 30, 2014. Last Monday was named Memorial Day. Some of us had the day off but others of us worked either officially or unofficially. How many of us stopped to consider what the day really means and where did it come from and why?
We all probably saw US flags dotting cemeteries especially military ones; some of us may have even flown the American flag at our home. We may have visited a cemetery in tribute to fallen soldiers or had a picnic. But what does it all mean?
Traditionally the day started after the U.S. Civil War to recognize the contributions of soldiers from both the South and the North. Actually there are much older records of a day set aside to honor warriors who had fallen.
Originally the name of the celebration was Decoration Day and was when families would gather from near and far to “decorate” the graves of fallen veterans and other family members. This was especially true in the South and in particular the mountains of eastern United States. It was a family celebration and there was often a religious service and a “dinner on the ground.” The traditional potluck grew out of this where the folks actually spread cloths and sat on the ground to eat.
Many graveyards in the rural mountains are private and, as such, tend to become overgrown if not tended. Decoration Day was a time to clear the encroaching weeds and shrubs and keep the graves in an honored state.
There is some disagreement as to where the first official day was celebrated. One group holds that it was in Warrenton, Virginia. Another group claims Savannah, Georgia, and still another group claims it was in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania. Regardless of who started it, it is now officially celebrated on the last Monday in May. On May 26, 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed a proclamation setting the holiday and declaring that the first official day was 100 years earlier in Waterloo, New York.
The name gradually changed from “Decoration Day” to “Memorial Day.” The term Memorial Day was first used in1882; however it did not become widely used until after World War II. When Congress enacted the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1968 it moved four holidays, including Memorial Day, from their traditional dates to a particular Monday. (The other three were Washington’s Birthday, Columbus Day, and Veterans Day) The primary purpose was to create a three-day weekend that could be a standard day. This moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30th date to the last Monday in May. Not all states wanted to do it but by 1971, they all had accepted the Monday holiday. Many people have continued to try to restore the older date saying that a Monday for just the sake of a holiday demeans the sacrifices made by soldiers.
Did you notice flags flying at half-mast on Monday? I did, but some businesses did not do the traditional method of flying the flag on Memorial Day. The accepted method is to raise the flag all the way in the morning of Memorial Day and then immediately lower it to half-staff. It remains there until noon and then returns to the top of the staff after noon. The reason for raising the flag to the top again is to recognize that the soldiers’ sacrifices were not in vain and will be carried on proudly by the living.
But in reflection there are lots of things we memorialize. We put markers on the graves of loved ones including beloved pets. Along highways there are sometime substantial displays near accident sites where loved ones were killed or seriously injured.
Our governmental agencies routinely create monuments to commemorate some famous person or event. All one needs to do is to walk down the Mall or slightly off it in Washington, D.C. to see the multitude of monuments.
There are several monuments that are very prominent that are devoted to the wars that we have fought and where our young people died. One of them is fairly new and commemorates World War II. There is the Korean War Memorial which honors those who died in this non-war. Finally the one that is probably most meaningful for those of us Boomers is the Viet Nam Memorial. This is a simple monument, without grand statues like Korea or imposing columns like World War II. The Viet Nam memorial is just a wall set in the ground with over 58 thousand names etched into its surface. When I visit the wall, I look for the names of friends and classmates who died in this small Southeast Asian country. The Wall is a fitting memorial. See photo below.
Other memorials to war achievements and the dead have been constructed in the District and surrounding states including the monument of the planting of the flag at Mt. Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima and the Tomb of the Unknowns which is at Arlington National Cemetery. The Arlington National Cemetery is resting place for more than 400,000 individuals with nearly seven thousand additional ones each year.
Many battlefields have associated burials including the one at the Battle of the little Big Horn where Colonel Custer and members of the U.S. 7th Cavalry were killed. There are memorial cemeteries to war dead that are located in foreign lands, especially in Europe, that are there as a consequence of World War II.
One of the most unusual cemeteries I’ve seen in the United States is on the Outer Banks. During World War II a British ship was torpedoed off the coast and the sailors washed ashore. The local inhabitants of Ocracoke Island buried the sailors with honor. This small plot of ground has been given to the United Kingdom so that these sailors can lie in their native soil. The graves are tucked away from the main street and are marked by the British Union Jack flying over them along with a plaque telling the story.
Do you have personal stories of memorials of any type or of Memorial Days past or present that you can share? Let me hear from you about your thoughts on the holiday or memorializing someone that you love and respect Send your thoughts, either via email at [email protected] or post them at the end of the column. I’ll look forward to hearing from you.