Memorial Day 2020

I am old enough to have heard a few first hand stories from veterans of World War I. When I was a child the WWI veterans led the Memorial Day parade in our town. They set a pace that was somewhat slower than we usually marched and I remember being a bit frustrated with the slow pace of the parade. The old guys weren’t as sharp in their uniforms and didn’t march in quite as straight a line as the WWII vets.

One of the stories of the time that I’ve told over and over is of C.C. Ricketts, grandfather of my wife whose war stories had to do with driving an army ambulance in St. Louis, Missouri. He said that when he was drafted they asked him if he could drive. He said, “Yes,” and they made him an ambulance driver. He was newly wed and his bride was able to join him in St. Louis. They would take the ambulance out to see the sights, sometimes with another couple along for the ride. One story involved being chased by the St. Louis police. They sped toward the base hospital with the lights and siren going and the police had to give up the chase. I’ve read several books about the war. I know a bit of the suffering of the troops who served in Europe and stories of those who died of the flu on the transport ships trying to make it back home. Still, my sense of the war is that there were some good memories along with the bad. There was death and suffering and sadness, but there were also stories of courage and survival. Of course the ones whose stories I heard were the survivors. That is the way it is with war.

My father was a veteran of World War II. He was a pilot before he entered military service and served as a service pilot for the entire war. Mostly he was an instructor pilot teaching multi-engine skills in Beech AT-11 trainers, later transitioning to heavy bombers, always in the role of an instructor. After the war ended he transferred to a transport unit, where they flew planes from the ships arriving on the west coast to a boneyard in Arizona. It was during that duty that he was forced to bail out of a plane with a failed engine and earned his purple heart. His war stories were airplane stories and I love airplane stories.

Most of the stories I know about the Korean war come not from the war or from veterans, but from the television show M*A*S*H. I’m sure that there are times when fiction can be employed to reveal deeper truths, but I doubt that the antics of the television doctors tell very much of the story. Those days weren’t fun and games for those who lived through them.

My generation’s war was in Vietnam, not a popular war and one from which the stories weren’t treasured. I’ve spent enough time with veterans near my age diffusing the trauma they experienced to know that there is plenty of ugliness in war.

Memorial Day, at its best, is about remembering people, not about remembering the trauma. Memories are interesting things. As we go through life we are continually sifting and sorting our memories. Some of our memories are transformed in the telling of the stories. Some are less frequently remembered. We set aside one day of the year as a time to remember. We visit the cemetery and we tell the stories. There are memories that we have pledged to never forget. There are stories of sacrifice that deserve to be preserved and told again and again. There are heroes who have gone before whose lives we still honor.

A parade like the ones that used to mark Memorial Day in my home town would not be a good idea in these days of physical distancing, self isolation and quarantine. Traditions grow and change in the face of major events. With the death toll from coronavirus nearing 100,000 it is impossible to escape being changed by the circumstances of this spring. We like to talk about life returning to normal, but all survivors know that life does not return to normal. A new way of living emerges after the pain and grief.

In trauma, there are painful memories that can become a burden, but there are also memories that we want to retain. We have promised ourselves to never forget the lessons of this life. We have promised to never forget the heroes who have sacrificed. We have promised to remember. And, when our memories are properly resolved, they can become our friends. Memories of good time and happy events can bring us deep joy. Memories of good people can remind us that there is still goodness in this world.

On this Memorial Day, I am wondering what we will remember from this time in our lives. Will we remember the protests against distancing, those who refuse to wear face masks, and the arguments in social media? Or will we remember the doctors and nurses and clerks and officers and firefighters and truck drivers who continued to bravely serve in the face of threat and risk of illness?

If past times of national trauma are an example, we will remember the good and speak of the heroes. The stories of this time will be the ones our grandchildren tell. My three-year-old granddaughter already has the term Covid in her vocabulary. Her sister and brother will remember this as the year they cancelled school and new routines were developed at home. They will be the stewards of the stories of our time. And perhaps they will also remember some of the stories that we tell them of other times as well.

A day dedicated to memories will continue to be an annual holiday. And each year we add to the memories and the stories to tell. Happy Memorial Day. May your memories be rich in meaning.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!