Like practically everything else in contemporary America, from the point of view of an old geezer, the occasion has become slicker, smoother, better directed and staged and always a little more removed from its original intention. Originally it was called Decoration Day and was conceived as an epilogue, a final afterword to the bloodiest war in our whole history the Civil War.
Brainchild of Gen. John Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, the first Memorial Day took place May 30, 1868. North and South, however, were not quite ready for healing and reunion, and kept their separate holidays until after World War I. This national day of remembrance now covers all the dead from any of our wars.
When I was a child it was still Decoration Day, a day off from school, a day to go downtown and see marching bands and lots of flags, large and small, veterans in ill-fitting uniforms from World War I and the Spanish American War, and a very few, fewer every year, very old gentlemen, in Confederate gray or Union blue, mostly being rolled past in review in their wheelchairs. We waved our little flags at the cemetery, and there were speeches and poems that drifted over the white rows of tombstones and went in one ear and out the other. One time the National Guard, not without some difficulty, fired off a cannon to prove they could, and I was deaf for a week.
High school, and there was a real war on, World War II, and there I was in a military academy in Sewanee, Tenn., and we marched in full dress uniforms, shining bayonets fixed on our beautiful 1903 Springfield rifles, to stand at attention before a monument while the bugler played taps. And somebody, maybe Mr. Tate himself, who lived nearby, read Allen Tate's "Ode to the Confederate Dead." Going and coming the band played a couple of quick marching tunes you are not likely to hear very often again "Dixie," and "Onward Christian Soldiers."
A little later, during the Korean "Police Action," I found myself playing the part of a real soldier in some real places the now forgotten Free Territory of Trieste and Linz, Austria. I don't recall our doing anything at all about that holiday. Anyway, every day was Memorial Day at Battalion Headquarters, an old cavalry outfit with battle flags of all kinds, beginning with the Civil War and the Indian Wars.
Behind all this is family history and family memory. Old and there must be many millions of veterans still out there, who now look back more than we ought to, searching for the lost names and stories of our warrior tribe, coming from the earliest days when we were clinging to the bleak shores of this dark continent, until the here and now. Earliest of my own that I have found so far is one Gershom Palmer, lieutenant of the Stonington (Connecticut) Company in King Phillips War (1675). I salute you, Lt. Palmer, and all the others, kith and kin, who have served in all of our wars, some dead and wounded in combat, some who died peacefully in bed. Play taps for all of them. Play taps for all of us. S
George Garrett is the poet laureate of Virginia.
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