REMEMBRANCE -- Memorial Day this year falls on May 30

by Placerville Newswire / May 18, 2016 / comments

"The mere fact that anyone occupied some space on the landscape between two defined dates has no significance whatsoever, except to the extent that it mattered, in some way or another, to someone else."

[by Jon Hendrickson] I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Memorial Day is observed in spring, a time of both reflection and renewal when the spare landscape of winter is transformed by sunlight and warmth into verdant abundance before the arrival of the sere summer months.  The prospect of what’s to come is illuminated by the remembrance of what’s come before.  While the holiday is officially dedicated to the memory of those who have fallen in our nation’s armed conflicts, in most of our minds the significance of our recollections embraces a more personal scope of relations and acquaintances.  When we think about where we came from or how we got to where we are, we remember those who went before us, who blazed the trails we followed or gave us the emotional and physical tools to use in blazing our own trails.  Some of these people went away and never came back, but most affected us by not falling in combat, or falling and getting back up and coming back, or remaining in our presence and serving in other, more personal, ways.  These are the people who helped us define our lives.  And more and more, they are passing into our memory.
Growing up in North Dakota, I would occasionally hear some of my dad's friends drop little bits and pieces of information about their time in the services during World War II; the name of some island or the type of rifle they used.  My dad was 4-F and did his service as a civilian employee of the Navy at Barbers Point, Hawaii, so his “war stories” were of a somewhat different kind.  When I was 14 or 15 years old, I remember one of my dad’s friends mentioning Guadalcanal kind of in passing.  I didn't think much about it at the time.  A few years ago, I was researching the work of an artist I’m acquainted with.  I was particularly interested in a portrait he did of a recipient of North Dakota’s Rough Rider Awards which are given to recognize the significant achievements of certain native sons and daughters of that state.  The individual portrayed was the first Sioux to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.  He was a member of the North Dakota National Guard.  I then learned that the North Dakota National Guard, of which several of my dad’s friends were apparently members, was nationalized as the 164th Infantry Regiment and later became part of the Americal Division.  It was the first U.S. Army unit to offensively engage the enemy in any theater of WWII when it joined the 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal in mid-October, 1942.  For three months before it was relieved, the regiment was embedded in and fought side-by-side with the Marines in some of the most brutal fighting of the war.  The Marines paid this unit the highest of compliments by calling it the "164th Marines" and awarding one of its battalion commanders the Navy Cross.  Later in the war, the regiment was known as seasoned jungle fighters and some of them were later attached to the famed “Merrill’s Marauders” in Burma.  Some of these guys were the fathers of friends of mine, but I never knew while I was growing up what they went through.  Noteworthy as they are, it's not their war exploits that I find as admirable as the men they became in spite of, or maybe because of, their experiences and the children they raised and the lives they lived in the middle of North Dakota.  I grew up in their shadow and they will always be a part of who I am.

Much more recently, I had occasion to witness the final military honors rendered to one of my uncles at the Sacramento Valley National Cemetery near Dixon.  This is one of the newer additions to the United States National Cemetery system.  It’s only been open since 2006 and the landscaping there, so far, does nothing to obliterate the horizon.  Except for the presence of distant mountain ranges and the absence on that particular day of the Western Meadowlark’s distinctive song, the quietness and unimpeded breeze seemed to help complete the circle for someone who grew up on prairies not very much unlike the one becoming his final home.
I have seen the military honors rendered several times, for both grandfathers, brother, father-in-law and now the first of my dad’s four brothers, all of whom are veterans.  There is poignancy to the ceremony which, to me, is at once chilling and heartwarming: the crisp precision of the three volley rifle salute fired over the flag-draped coffin, the melancholy melody of “Taps” carried in the breeze, the solemn ceremony of folding and presentation of the flag.  There is, first, the overwhelming sense of duty, honor, country and of service above self.  But then, every time, my mind turns to reflect on the life that has wound up at this place before me and how I have been molded, shaped, changed or enriched by that person’s presence in my life.  And, always, I am brought to examine my own life through the lens of the one to whom I am saying good-bye.  Somewhere in that broth of emotion is the intensely personal thing that makes my eyes wet.

Of course, these kinds of feelings are not exclusive to military funerals.  Every time we say good-bye to someone we love, that person’s mission in life, whether we know it or not, becomes at least a part of who we are.  The nature of the honors we give our loved ones, the way we remember them, is a mirror of whom we have become because of having known them.  “Memorial” is all about remembrance, the people, events and places in our lives to which we give special meaning, that gives context to our own lives.  The search for and finding of that meaning is a fundamental element of the human experience.

When I visit a cemetery, I’m usually there to visit a family member or friend and am mostly focused on wordlessly hearing them through the permutations of my own memory.  But I have also sometimes become aware of the other inhabitants surrounding me with the intention of remembrance silently speaking to me with their messages engraved on ageless stones reaching up from the ground.  And I wonder about why the messages say what they say; what it is they, or more likely the surviving family and friends who placed them there, most wanted to say about themselves and for what they wanted to be remembered.

It is the living who have the luxury of deciding how to remember the departed and that’s largely a reflection of how they want to be remembered themselves.  The mere fact that anyone occupied some space on the landscape between two defined dates has no significance whatsoever, except to the extent that it mattered, in some way or another, to someone else.  Memorial Day is about service to country, and it’s certainly fitting that our country’s fallen and departed veterans be honored in the manner prescribed, so we seek out the monuments to that service on that day.  But I think it’s also important to remember and pay similar tribute to all the departed we hold dear.  It may not ever be perfectly expressed, but I believe this is one of the definitions of love.