Reflections on a Memorial Day Service, May 29, 2016
For me growing up in the years before time, Memorial Day meant putting on my high-top Keds, my flannel Little League uniform, marching down East Hartford’s Main Street in the morning, and getting to play ball that afternoon. Sometime over the weekend we would go on a family picnic up to Henry Park in Rockville. Other than noticing the flags on veterans’ graves, reveling in the long weekend that delivered summer, and the newspapers filled with ads, I knew little about Memorial Day.
At its core, Memorial Day honors the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. (In that respect, it’s distinct from Veterans’ Day which honors all veterans.) In the years following the Civil War it was known as Decoration Day for the tradition of placing flowers on the graves of the fallen. There continues to be argument about the who, when, and how of the first Decoration Day; sharp differences between the Union and Confederacy over when to hold the ceremonies; and how it changed from Decoration Day to Memorial Day. But the heart, the intent of the day, still rings true in the words of the Union general, John Logan, who called for a nationwide day of remembrance: “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.”
The name, Memorial Day, did not come into widespread use until after World War II. It was not declared the official name by federal law until 1967. Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act the following year (June 28, 1968) that moved four holidays, including Memorial Day, to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend. (See, government can do good.) This moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date (the historical premise being that flowers were in abundant bloom) to the last Monday in May.
So, here we are on a Memorial Day weekend, nearly 150 years later, with the experience of regional wars, two world wars, numerous military efforts to overthrow distasteful governments, and the dispiriting sense of war without end. Indeed, earlier this month marked the date when the Nobel Peace Prize winner, President Obama, had been at war longer than any president in American history.
If we allow ourselves to think beyond the Weekend Spirit of Memorial Day, we find ourselves, as members of a liberal religious community, in the uncomfortable position of typically being against war and wary of those who seek to fire up the coarse emotions drive countries to war. At the same time, we want to support those who serve, as well as commit our military strength to defend those unable to defend themselves, no matter where terror and oppression strive to destroy lives and freedom.
Let me share a few brief thoughts on ways liberal religious communities might wrestle with these often opposing positions.
First, it is our responsibility, defined by our principles — dignity, respect, truth, justice, equity, democracy, care of the earth — to demand an open, public, and hard look at any call to war.
I say this because respect for citizens in a democratic republic demands it.
I say it because it has become way too easy to go to war in this country. In the title of Geoffrey Perret’s 1989 book, we are A Nation Made by War. It should not be easy for powerful people to suppress dissent by conjuring up the magic spell of National Security.
And, I say it because presidents and politicians lie. Recall Vietnam and the Gulf of Tonkin, Iraq and “weapons of mass destruction”.
Second, it is our responsibility to know the political history of how, when, and with what rationalizations political people have committed our citizens to war. Over the past few years I’ve been reading some of that history. I’ve lived through some 60 years of it and thought I knew something about what was going on. I clearly did not. What historians, biographers, and other scholars have found in looking at over 100 years of American wars is a pattern of overt and covert military force to support corporate interests; imperialist ambition; poor to non-existent intelligence; unfounded fears of weak adversaries, and an always fluid roster of new “enemies”. All compounded by an arrogance of power and willful ignorance of other countries and their cultures. Simply put, we need to know how, by whom, and why we got into war so that we can gear up our informed skepticism the next time we hear that awful cliché, “boots on the ground.”
Third, it is our responsibility to understand the fundamental changes that have reshaped our relationship to war, and, more specifically to those who bear arms. War is now waged in our name without specific declaration, with little shared financial sacrifice, with a small professional volunteer force, with legions of civilian contractors and complex technologies, and with no clear understanding of what victory means. The citizen soldier has been replaced by the National Security State.
The issue here is the growing gulf between those who go into battle and the society from which they come. We live in an age of spectator wars. We watch combat on television, in movies, and through video games. The harsh reality of death in war touches fewer and fewer families and communities. Consider that some 625,000 died in the Civil War, where, in General Logan’s words, their “bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.” Compare these numbers to the 7100 lost in Iraq and Afghanistan. Few cities, villages, or hamlet churchyards hold them. I have not known them. I have not known their families. I doubt that I’m alone here. This increasingly huge gap between the very small number who serve and the much larger society raises basic issues of fairness, shared sacrifice, and social support for them.
That said, we have an immediate responsibility to respect and honor those whose lives have been taken in service to the country. That is why we have Memorial Day. That is why we acknowledge Memorial Day in a worship service. It is not a celebration of war but a reminder of the cost of war. Our civic duty to question, challenge, and dispute those in power must not obscure our responsibility to those who serve. We cannot allow that to happen. Those who serve are our families, our friends, our neighbors.
One powerful reminder of these ties is the stories of those we do know, as we will hear from David Garnes and Jim Adams. Jim’s wife, Sylvia Ounpuu, has graciously agreed to stand in for Jim, as he is not able to be here today.
I’d like to begin by reading a poem from a book I wrote:
It’s called “After the War Was Over: December 1945.”
Standing on the cold and crowded station platform
Pushed against trousers of scratchy wool
The boy nestles in the fragrance of his mother’s coat
They’re meeting the man in the photo on the piano
The tall sailor in Navy whites holding the hand
Of the little boy straining to meet his grip
The son’s tiny white cap perches on his mass of curls
Not as comfortably as the father’s, worn with easy
Swagger atop his sun- bleached butch
First a far-off whistle then a single piercing light
As the huge engine lumbers in on screeching wheels
His mother’s nails dig into the boy’s mittened palm
Smudged faces are visible from every window and
Hands wave wildly to the sounds of muffled shouts
A sharp hiss of air and the steel steps are lowered
The sailor is first off the train and taller than anyone
He sweeps the boy’s mother in a fierce embrace
That knocks her felt tam to the dirty boarded floor
Your hat! Mommy your hat! Cries the boy
Then his turn comes
And he’s lifted high overhead where
He hangs suspended in the frosty air
He reaches out to his smiling mother
Mindful of the space between them
Hurting from the tight grip of unfamiliar hands
Smelling a scent different from the one he knows
As you may have guessed, the scared little boy is me, and the returning sailor is my father, James “Jim” Garnes, whom I was seeing for the first time in my memory. This in fact is one of my very earliest memories, one that has stayed particularly vivid in my mind. Though it was a big day no matter how you look at it, I think for me it represented the beginning of a relationship that I’m convinced was partially formed by the circumstances of war.
I was a pre-World War II baby. I was four months old on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941 when Pearl Harbor was attacked. My mother told me in later years that I was asleep in my crib, she was doing the dishes, and my dad was listening to a football game on the Philco radio in the living room.
My father enlisted in the Navy because he wanted a choice of where to serve when it became apparent that married men with children would be drafted. He left for boot camp and eventually the Pacific before I was two years old and I didn’t see him again for several years.
Always a quiet, somewhat introverted person, he apparently was even more so in his first years back from the war. He was a stranger to me, but I suppose I’d become somewhat a stranger to him, since I had evolved from a baby into a youngster getting ready to start school. Moreover, I’d been pampered by my mother and my aunt and my grandmother, with whom we lived during the war. Why was this new, large arrival—my father was nearly 6 feet 5 inches tall—why was he getting all the attention? It wasn’t easy for either of us.
Nor had it been easy for those on the homefront during the war. My family was lucky in many ways. Women with children were not great candidates for jobs. My mother began work at the Mass Mutual Life Insurance Compny in Springfield in 1943, the very week they began to hire married women for the first time. Also, my grandmother, my dad’s mother, was home to take care of me while my mother was at work. Women working in companys that had unions also found that the unions themselves were not necessarily in favor of day care centers at work, since they feared it would give too much power to management. As I mentioned above, it was not an easy time.
I’d like to say that over the years my father and I became best buddies, but that was not the case. As an adult I developed a polite relationship with him and we got along “OK.” We just never connected, and in some ways he remained the stranger I’d met at the train station years earlier. However, my father and brother, born in the suburbs eight years after me in 1949, had a much closer relationship, and in retrospect at least, I’m very glad of that for both of them.
The times I remember the most were when I could get my dad to talk about the war. He didn’t much, but when he did, I remembered everything he told me about the typhoon his LST ship navigated through, the kamikaze attacks that were frequent towards the end of the war, and his participation in the battle of Okinawa. It’s ironic, isn’t it, that the very thing that separated us in my early years on this planet and his early years as a father was what provided the most vivid, connecting conversations that we had.
The presence of war in those very early years of my life and in his young adulthood and our absence from each other during this time certainly may have created a roadblock that made resuming—or, really, creating—a close relationship difficult. On the other hand, had the war had not occurred, there may still have been a certain distance between us. Who knows? Whatever…It’s that kind of “What if?” question that many, perhaps most, of us carry around, unresolved, regarding one thing or another.
World War II has been called the “good” war. I understand the term—there truly seemed no alternative but to get in the fight in 1941—but I’m not so sure I’d ever use that adjective to describe war. Remember: World War I, a scant 23 years earlier, had been “the war to end all wars.” And so it goes.
Perhaps because the spectre of war is so awful and the maintaining of freedom so tenuous, we tend to embellish our holidays and days of remembrance with traditions that go beyond the original intent of the particular observance. I think Memorial Day family gatherings and parades and visits to cemeteries to remember all those who have gone before are fine. Anything that strengthens the sense of community and acknowledges the value of human connection is worthy to be observed. Memorial Day mattress sales, on the other hand, I find more questionable!
War and death affect everyone, and in closing I would like personally to acknowledge the originally intended meaning of Memorial Day. As Lorry mentioned, it began as “Decoration Day” to honor the dead of the Civil War. My grandmother, for example, always called it that.
I want to name an Air Force officer whose all-too-real death was the first I’d personally experienced of someone actively serving in the military. I had a good college friend, Francis Driscoll, who graduated a year after I did and then served in Vietnam beginning in 1965. Fran was a pilot and bailed out from his damaged plane over Laos in 1968. His parachute failed to open, and the location of his remains is unknown.
The sun was just starting to come up and I sensed it as my eyes slowly opened, with the sound of the highway reverberating through the floor of our 1962 Ford station wagon. I reached under the mattress that I was laying on, the one my Dad had wrestled into the car the night before in preparation for our journey half way across the country, and pulled out 5 fresh issues of Mad magazine that I had been saving for this trip. I had made sure not to read a single page before I had hid them under my bed at home, one each month leading up to our departure. My Mom and Dad, brother and sister, and I were on the road somewhere in the southeast US, as we did at least twice every year, headed for my parent’s hometown, Chrisman, Illinois. For me, it was like a trip to Disney Land. We were going on vacation; a week of rough housing with cousins, dinners with Grandparents, Aunts, and Uncles, working on the farm, and riding ponies. But for now, as I began enunciating to my increasingly annoyed father who was at the wheel, I really needed to go to the bathroom.
I grew up in a military family, my father an Air Force pilot, and my Mother the dedicated wife who took tremendous pride in her role as a military wife, homemaker, kid raiser, and as my Dad would say, the one who “held down the fort”. I had lived in 8 different towns by the time I was 14, and grew to think of life as being lived in segments, where friendships were temporary, and new and exciting adventures were always just ahead at my Dad’s next assignment. We lived in Florida (twice), Japan (2 different homes), Tennessee, Illinois, Virginia, and finally Texas, where I would graduate from high school and college. Yes, military life involved lots of moving, often with minimal advanced notice and always without any choice. You went where they sent you.
As a kid, I never gave this routine much thought. It’s just the way life was. You get to try lots of schools, after a couple of years exploring a neighborhood and settling into a house, you’re not surprised when its time to move again. And your Dad is just gone a lot; sometimes for a few nights, sometimes for months, and sometimes for a year or more. I asked my Mom how it felt when he was gone and if she worried about him, especially the time he left suddenly one night during the Cuban missile crisis, or in 1966 when he was sent to Vietnam. And here is what she had to say:
“I was very proud of Rob (that’s my Dad) and knew he was an excellent pilot. Sure, I worried, but at the same time I had every confidence in his ability. I think it was hardest when he was in Vietnam as I went long periods without hearing from him but, thank God, I had you kids and family to help me through that time. Having you three kids was a blessing to me, I loved being a parent; I truly loved my job!!! The other wives became like family and we counted on each other in so many ways, kept ourselves busy with wives clubs, lunches, bridge, and just being there for one another. Military life to me was a great privilege and I am quite proud to say I was a Military Wife! I am so proud of your Dad. Life with him has truly been a pleasure, maybe a little bumpy at times, but I loved it!!!”
There is no doubt that the most significant period for our family was when my Dad was sent to Vietnam. We kids were too young to understand the gravity of the situation, but my Mom must have been very aware. At the time, my Dad flew C-130 cargo planes, and though he wasn’t actually involved in battle, he flew into it, and he was lucky enough to come back alive after 1½ years. But so many didn’t. My Dad didn’t talk much about what he did, but I remember 2 of his stories well. One of his jobs was to deliver paratroopers to the front lines. They would sit quietly in the back of the plane during the several hours it took to reach their destination, and when they were a couple of minutes from the drop zone, my Dad would reach down and flip on a yellow light to warn them. In a matter of seconds, they would all be on their feet, running in place, yelling, preparing themselves for the task ahead. In the cockpit, my Dad could feel the plane shaking and hear their warrior chorus. When they reached the drop zone, my Dad would flip on a green light, and open the aft cargo door, exposing the jungles of Vietnam several hundred feet below. And immediately, the soldiers would start running in line out the back of the plane, and slowly, the shaking and the noise would subside until there was just the drone of the engines. They were on their way.
Unfortunately, another of his stories involved soldiers again, possibly some of the same ones he carried before. But this time there was only the drone of the engines. Because some of his missions involved hauling the remains of soldiers back from the front lines in preparation for their return home. As I said, my Dad never talked about things much, but I remember him saying how he so disliked these missions. So many young men, and some women, never made it home like my Dad did. On this Memorial Day, its important that we never forget them, their sacrifice, and the sacrifice of their families.
The other thing that was significant about my Dad’s tour of duty in Vietnam was that for the first time, the family got to choose where we wanted to live while he was away. I’m not sure of all the reasons my parents chose the town they did, but for me, it was an absolute dream come true. We were going to live in Chrisman, the special place I had visited so many times and come to think of as simply magical. Where my Dad had been captain of the basketball team, my Mom a head cheerleader, with my cousins in their amazing Victorian home with ponies in the barn, my Uncle’s farm with so many chores, the town square with Wednesday night movies, the local drive in with root beer, a grandpa, 2 grandmas, and an Aunt that made me feel so special every time I saw her. To this day, there had never been a place where I felt so much at home, but like all the other places before, when my Dad returned after a year and a half, we were packing up again and heading for Virginia. On the day before we left, I can still remember running out the back door of my Aunts house, stopping at the edge of her garden, and bawling my eyes out. Please don’t make me leave. Of all the moves we made before and after, this was the only one that affected me this way.
As I think back on that wonderful town of Chrisman, I can only imagine how hard it must have been for my parents to leave after my Dad graduated from college as a 2nd Lieutenant. They were in their 20s, still newlyweds, with a 6 week old baby, leaving the only place they had ever known as home. I don’t think either of them had ever travelled any more than 100 miles from Chrisman. But that would change. They were now off to join a new family, their military family, which would bring them adventure, so many good times, support during rough times, and a sense of pride that they cherish to this day. When I asked my Mom about this chapter in her life, here’s what she had to say:
I always said I never wanted to leave Chrisman, but alas and alack, that’s what happened. I was excited yet hated to leave the folks and family. Rob came to Chrisman when Charlie (my older brother) was just 6 weeks old, picked us up, and we headed for Tucson, Arizona. We arrived on January 1st, having traveled through a huge blizzard. We didn’t realize just how lucky we were when we found a motel open and stopped for the night. Other wise we may have been stranded on the road as many other’s were. I was so homesick. But again, I was so proud to becoming a Military Wife, seeing sights I had never imagined seeing. Cotton fields, orange groves, living in Japan, having two children there, one buried there. Living in seven states, traveling through many more. It was an experience I never dreamed of living. I would do it all over again!!!
As long as I can remember, there has been a poem hanging on the wall of our house that my Mom had hung up long ago, a prayer of sorts I had always assumed applied just to my Dad. But I realize now that in many ways, it was true for all of our family, especially my Mom. I close with “High Flight”, by John Gillespie Magee, an American pilot in the Royal Canadian Airforce, who died during World War II at age 19:
Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds
And done a hundred things you have not dreamed of,
Wheeled and soared and swung high in the sunlit silence.
Hovering there I’ve chased the shouting wind along
And flung my eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace,
Where never lark, or even eagle, flew;
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.