Rifle fire honors the veterans. Some young man, perhaps a young woman, plays taps for a small but respectful gathering. The notes rise and fall with the wind gusts and settle among the stones and disappear to wherever such music goes. That’s how I remember Memorial Day years ago on the small and windswept hill overlooking the Arkansas River Valley town of my birthplace.
Events of honor and reverence are conducted every Memorial Day in thousands of towns across the nation. Cemetery visitors tend toward the old. There are speeches, but politics are largely on hold as families arrive and depart, bearing vases, puttering with the landscaping and sharing recollections of long-gone relatives. Everyone is an American, at least for that day, even the lonely soul laid to rest in one far corner of the prairie cemetery I remember—a Chinese railroad worker who helped build the Santa Fe, and who died with a pick in his hands. He had no known relatives or friends, though someone did carve a few Chinese characters into his marker.
It’s strange that it’s so peaceful at the end of the trail. It’s the same but different in many towns. Not every living visitor is overly thoughtful or reverent. Somewhere, a middle age man sizes up the crowd and wonders how he might buy the place and sell tickets. Another town has an old man who is critical and cynical about everything as he wanders through the stones, looking for a small audience to capture and impale on his narrow views. His square-framed wife carries a Bible as she follows. She has (and would) forgive him of almost anything.
And somewhere a young girl holds the hand of a boy in her high school. She loves school. He does not. He does not even understand why the moon stays in the sky. He wants to drive nails for a living and help the pretty girl enter the next generation of mothers. He will go to a war not yet declared. That will free her to take her grief to college and become a doctor of astrophysics. The boy she loved at the edge of her own childhood will lie somewhere under the buffalo grass. She will not always come on Memorial Day. She will join the modern ranks of those who once were cowboys, mountain men and sailors always searching for new horizons. The trail she seeks through the stars is unbelievably long and difficult.
And so they arrive and wander and go, the old and the young. They hear speeches, share news of their ailments and offer histories of those buried soon after the Indians were gone. They recall a few incidents, but remember little about many who fought in Vietnam or in the Middle East and those who never came back but, instead, lie in Margraten in Holland and dozens of other cemeteries.
The day, also known as Decoration Day, is for the fallen like the fake flowers that grace the stones and the tears that fall in the dust. The past is gone and will stay gone. Life is really no longer than a few tomorrows. We, the living, should pay respect for a moment, and then use what we learned from those who fell to make better use of today.
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This column represents alternative thoughts to other published columns in the Crossville Chronicle. “We the People” is published each Wednesday. Opinions expressed in “We the People” columns are not necessarily those of the Crossville Chronicle publisher, editor or staff. For more information, contact John Wund, coordinator, at email@example.com.