A few years back, when a Times Review editor visited a national cemetery for a Memorial Day story, he stumbled upon a Vietnam veteran and cemetery caretaker.
Asked where he would be on Memorial Day, the man answered, “Here.” The caretakers at national cemeteries don’t take long weekends, because by law those cemeteries can’t close for more than 48 hours at a time.
“People say ,‘Memorial Day, oh, a day off, great beach day, shopping,’ ” the man said. “But you know, most people don’t know why they got this day.”
He pointed to the grass at his feet. “This right here is why they got it.”
Memorial Day once struggled to keep its original meaning. But the day has recovered some of its essence because of the rising number of dead Americans who will be honored by their families this weekend for service during wars in Iraq and Afghanistan throughout these long, bloody 15 years. The day we honor our war dead came about 149 years ago this month when a military order came down to place flowers on both Union and Confederate graves at Arlington National Cemetery. It then became what was originally called “Decoration Day,” when families would go to cemeteries to clean the graves of their loved ones and plant flowers.
Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural speech gave the country direction in the aftermath of the Civil War, and a clue to how future generations should act: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive … to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan …”
We’re lucky here, for many reasons, and one is that the North Fork hasn’t forgotten what the day signifies at this crossroad of the seasons.
Attend a local parade or service Monday and remember all who served — especially those who died wearing American uniforms — and their families, who carry on bravely without them.