May 30th is the 150th anniversary of celebrating and remembering deceased veterans. It began in 1868 as Decoration Day to commemorate the soldiers slain in the Civil War, and later those lost in the Spanish-American, World War I and World War II. As a child in the 1950’s, we celebrated the day in quaint ways that seem almost relics from another century. I remember Decoration Day (as we called before 1971) as a more solemn and communal occasion than it seems after changing its observance from a fixed date to the end of a three-day weekend on the fourth Monday in May. Along the way, we may lost much of the communal solemnity.
Decoration Day always occurred during the most glorious weather southern Minnesota can offer. A time to honor the dead at a season of new life. The trees were leafed out, wild phlox and geraniums bloomed in the woodlands, orioles and meadowlarks trilled from the fencerows and cottonwood groves. This day meant two things important to this schoolboy: my little sister’s birthday and the last week of classes before summer vacation.
My memories of our small-town Decoration Day celebration began with the sale of buddy poppies in the Rexall drug store, the Ben Franklin dime store and other shops. Veterans of World War II sold them to raise money for comrades disabled in conflict. At the age of 10 or 11, I couldn’t explain why I bought one except everyone expected me to. Like going to church, I did it because–well–everyone else did it. It was part of being an American to wear this icon of remembrance and sacrifice.
On this day, the merchants of Janesville hung out flags and there was a parade led by the VFW honor guard carrying the American flag followed by the drill team marching along, the sun gleaming off their chromed helmets and the barrels of the Springfield rifles on their shoulders. Behind them came VWF Women’s Auxiliary and the high school band playing patriotic songs for this solemn occasion. If there were speeches, I don’t recall them but they weren’t things boys remembered.
Decoration Day meant a trip to the Janesville Cemetery on a knoll a mile east of town. In the days leading up to the celebration, families raked the ground over the graves, mowed the new grass and decorated the headstones with flowers (real or made of paper), and small American flags. Our family went to the cemetery with Aunt Faith to visit her father’s grave. On the headstones I saw many familiar surnames, the ancestors of my classmates and school chums. Even as a boy, I felt a palpable but still inexpressible link connecting me to those lying beneath the headstones.
Almost every man I knew when I was a boy had served in World War II in some capacity. Uncle Walter, our neighbor’s brother, lost an eye fighting the Japanese. Our dentist served in the cavalry (without horses), mother’s cousin was a B-24 crew chief and my uncle Rob ran an Air Force fighter communications network in China.
Mrs. Wegge, our sixth-grade teacher, prepared us for Decoration Day. I recall learning the first stanza of the famous poem, In Flanders’ Fields, written in 1915 by a Canadian soldier amazed to see the brilliant red flowers blooming in the hellish no-man’s land churned and pocked by shells:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
The poem’s elegiac meaning made little impression on me until the summer of 1961, after I graduated from high school. I visited Flanders in Belgium as part of an air cadet exchange with other NATO countries. Belgium is one tenth the size of Minnesota and a battleground during much of its history. Flanders lies north of Brussels, Waterloo, the site of Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, lies just south of it and Bastogne, a major battle of World War II, lies to the east. During that month, our Belgian Air Force hosts showed us historic sites from many wars. We laid a wreath at the tomb of the unknown and our contingent sat atop the hull of a tank destroyed in the battle for Bastogne, sixteen years before. I returned home from Belgium amid a national mobilization for conflict with the Soviet Union over access to Berlin. War seemed very close.
The grief of the Civil War, the Great War and World War II touched virtually every American community and nearly everyone knew of a family that had lost someone. Congressional declarations of war and shared sorrow once mobilized the nation into a common effort. For 30 years, compulsory military service gave young men a common and transformative experience and every family a direct stake in going to war or opposing it.
John F. Kennedy’s call to “ask what you can do for your country” has lapsed with time. The abolition of the draft and reliance on a wholly professional military has made serving one’s country an option, a choice but not a shared responsibility. I fear this change has made us numb to the conflicts ostensibly waged for our protection. And with this disconnection, we may lose our understanding of Memorial or Decoration Day as a time of comunal remembrance.