Day is less than two weeks away. Memorial Day weekend, particularly
in the East, signals the official beginning of summer. Like many
of our national holidays it has become dream fodder for marketing
departments everywhere. Businesses boast special saving on everything
from barbeque grills to deodorant to automobiles at special Memorial
Day “Blow-Out” Savings!
Better than thirty years ago now, Congress decided to rearrange
our holidays to create three-day weekends; more time for sales bargains
and fun. Originally Memorial Day was celebrated on May 30, but now
it’s the last Monday of May. Labeled as the beginning of summer,
folks will be loading up their SUV’s to overflowing and heading
for the country, sojourns to lakes and rivers and parks for cookouts
and picnics, festivities of all kinds. Perhaps you’ll simply
throw a steak on the backyard grill. Celebration is the order of
the day and why not, the weather’s great and the great out-of-doors
is definitely rejuvenating for the soul.
was a kid growing up on the Illinois prairie, Memorial Day was celebrated
on its true date, no matter which day of the week it happened to
fall upon. Some of you may actually recall what it was like to pause
in the middle of a workweek to celebrate a holiday. It had a different
name too, Decoration Day. Officially it had become Memorial Day,
but everybody called it Decoration Day, some still do. The Indianapolis
500 became a 20th Century Memorial Day tradition. I still love to
hear the engines roar to life at the opening of that race.
I remember lining up down by the grade school with dozens of other
kids my age to march in the Decoration Day Parade. There were flags
and flag bearers, bands, horses, patriotic floats and dignitaries
in convertibles. Most of all there were men in uniform, proud veterans.
Each kid was given an American flag and off we’d march out
to the town cemetery. There would be ceremonial speeches and prayers
and then the soldiers would salute their fallen brothers by firing
their rifles. That part thrilled me because the rifles were loud
and boys like that sort of thing. But what happened next remains
most vivid. Somewhere out beyond the tree line that circled the
cemetery, far from sight in the middle of a newly planted cornfield,
an invisible lone bugler would play taps. The thought of those disembodied
notes adrift on spring air brings chills even now.
Actions of women initiated Decoration Day at the time of the Civil
War. Colonel James Hunter was killed at the Battle of Gettysburg
in 1863. The following spring his daughter Emma Hunter of Boalsburg,
Pennsylvania placed flowers on his grave in Gettysburg Cemetery.
On April 26, 1866 four southern women in Columbus, Mississippi went
out to Friendship Cemetery, the site of the Battle of Shiloh. They
scattered flowers over the graves of not only Confederate soldiers
but Union soldiers as well. The notion that Southern women would
mark the graves of Union soldiers with flowers was met with surprise.
The news of this incident spread north, reaching the New York Tribune.
The newspaper commended the ladies for their selfless, respectful
same time Henry C. Welles, a Waterloo, New York druggist convinced
townspeople to honor Civil War dead by decorating their graves.
They made wreaths, crosses and bouquets for the patriot’s
graves, flags were flown at half-mast and a processional, led by
veterans, marched to the town's cemeteries.
On May 5, 1868 General John Logan, Commander-in-Chief of the Grand
Army of the Republic (GAR), officially proclaimed the 30th day of
May, as the first Decoration Day. In General Order Number 11, he
wrote, “May 30 is designated for the purpose of strewing with
flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died
in defense of their country.” The South refused to acknowledge
Decoration Day, honoring their dead on separate days until after
World War I. Divisiveness and discord die hard.
This year enjoy the cookouts and other outdoor festivities and events
you have planned. It is indeed a good time for celebration. But
take a moment or two wherever you are and consider the true meaning
of this holiday. Take a stroll into any cemetery; take along some
flowers. You’ll find those GAR markers on the graves of Civil
War veterans, before long you eye will discover markers and flags
designating those from other wars who have given the supreme sacrifice.
A whispered thank you will go a long way toward restoring and preserving
the dignity and respect this holiday truly deserves.
In General Order Number 11 it also states quite poetically, “If
other eyes grow dull and other hands slack, and other hearts cold
in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light
and warmth of life remain in us. Let us, then, at the time appointed,
gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds
above them with choicest flowers of springtime.”
We’ll talk next time From The Road.