Most people equate the last Monday in May with barbecues, mattress sales and a day off from work. In fact, just last week, my son said, “We have no school on Monday because it is Memorial Day.” Beginning at the end of the Civil War, however, Memorial Day was intended to be a time to remember men (and now, women) of the armed forces who have died in service to our country. So I corrected my son: “It is Memorial Day because people in the military have died for us. And that is why you have no school on Monday.”
Granted, this is a hard thing to keep in mind. We are bombarded with sales fliers, party supplies, and advertisements that blur the lines between remembrance and celebration. Indeed, for many people, I think Memorial Day has become a second Fourth of July. Consider: Should we have fireworks at both? Should we wear funny hats and blow noisemakers in May and July?
The true meaning of Memorial Day was probably easier to recall during history’s greatest wars, when troops by the hundreds were dying overseas, and almost no family was unaffected. Then, on the last Monday in May, people probably didn’t feel like celebrating. They felt like remembering.
Military life and its sacrifices have less reach today. And although we have lost thousands of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, even those numbers are overshadowed by the death toll of other wars. But military men and women serve in war and in peace, and there is danger in both. Aviators, in particular (although definitely not alone), risk their lives even when they are “just” training in the United States. Offhand, I can think of several friends who have died in plane crashes that did not involve combat: Frank, Dustin’s friend from the Naval Academy; Adam, who helped plan Dustin’s bachelor party; Nick, who sat behind me in Spanish class in high school; and Clint, who died while his wife was pregnant with their third child. Deaths like these, as well as the ones that happen overseas and in a war, shake a community. The neighbors and friends of these men won’t soon forget the real meaning behind Memorial Day. But, unfortunately, in our atomized, status-update society, that influence has diminished.
I say that, but then, I’ve never reconciled which is worse: for the military to have too much or too little exposure. On the one hand, when civilians are surrounded by military families, it is hard for them to forget the sacrifices these families make. There are plenty of service member moms and dads missing Sunday morning’s soccer games, so how could anyone not remember?
But on the other hand, when the local culture is saturated with military families — as it is in places like Norfolk, Va., and San Diego, Calif. — people lose awareness. (So, your dad was on deployment and missed your graduation? Well, half the graduating class was in the same situation. Big deal.) Military families are only reinforcing for other military families the sacrifices of service, and there are few civilian counterparts to benefit from the awareness.
Two weeks ago I visited Brunswick Naval Air Station. On May 31, the base will close its gates and fade into history. Already, the deserted streets and fields scattered with weeds seem like ghostly images of the base’s former self. At the front gate, I recalled the last time I had been to NAS Brunswick, when a line of cars bent around the curb, onto the street, waiting for access. Jets roared and men and women in flight suits busily walked here and there.
Now NAS Brunswick has the feel of an old, abandoned factory.
This is sad on many accounts, but mostly for this: Slowly, one by one, military installations in the Northeast are shutting down. Our Navy in particular is pushing itself farther into the Southeast and West of the United States, leaving an exceptional void in New England. This means that relatively few Northerners will know someone who has died in combat or in training. Relatively few will know families who have been separated by a deployment for the last 12 months. Fewer still will spot uniformed military men and women in line at the gas station or next to them at the stoplight.
What this means is that for a large portion of our country, which is losing touch with the culture of military life, Memorial Day is just a day to relax and have a party. And maybe that is all right. Our ability to forget things like war, death and sacrifice in exchange for comfort, pleasure and abundance is exactly what those service members died for.
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.