Cook: Searching for more on Memorial Day

Cook: Searching for more on Memorial Day

May 26th, 2019 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.

I can't remember the last time I genuinely and somberly memorialized any deceased veteran on Memorial Day.

Instead, we usually go swimming. There's a cooler of drinks. Nearby, someone's grilling out. There are great sales in stores. We may talk about the American war dead; then again, we may not.

For me, Memorial Day has lost much of its meaning.

It's about the start of summer.

Not a national day of solemn remembrance.

Two of my best friends are post-Gulf War veterans, but I haven't been to the funeral of a War on Terror veteran. Nor a Gulf War vet. Nor any veteran killed during active duty.

Why?

Because I don't know any.

"The best way to think of Memorial Day is not as a national military funeral, but as a national wake," writes columnist and Marine pilot Carl Fosling of Task & Purpose.

But how do I hold a wake if I don't know the dead?

"I'm angry," writes Marine veteran Jennie Haskamp for the Washington Post. "I've come to realize people think Memorial Day is the official start of summer. It's grilled meat, super-duper discounts, a day [or two] off work, beer, potato salad and porches draped in bunting.

"But it shouldn't be. It's more than that."

The day has its roots in post-Civil War America, when Decoration Days were marked as ways to remember the Confederate and Union dead.

Yet some reports say the earliest Memorial Day began with freed slaves in Charleston, S.C. Here's the story, according to History.com:

When Charleston fell and Confederate troops evacuated the badly damaged city, freed slaves remained. One of the first things those emancipated men and women did was to give the fallen Union prisoners a proper burial.

They exhumed the mass grave and reinterred the bodies in a new cemetery with a tall whitewashed fence inscribed with the words: "Martyrs of the Race Course."

And then on May 1, 1865, something even more extraordinary happened. According to two reports that Blight found in The New York Tribune and The Charleston Courier, a crowd of 10,000 people, mostly freed slaves with some white missionaries, staged a parade around the race track.

Three thousand black schoolchildren carried bouquets of flowers and sang "John Brown's Body." Members of the famed 54th Massachusetts and other black Union regiments were in attendance and performed double-time marches. Black ministers recited verses from the Bible.

In the late 1960s, Memorial Day was officially named the last Monday in May.

Then, the conscription draft shifted to an all-volunteer military; so did the gap between civilians and soldiers.

In 2016, only 7% of our adult population were veterans, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In 1980, it was 18%.

If only seven out of 100 American adults have military experience, then that means 93 of us don't.

And Memorial Day begins to lose its meaning.

"I want to see people besides the small percentage of us who are veterans, know veterans, love veterans or lost veterans, understand what the day is about," writes Haskamp. "It's the one day on the American calendar meant to exemplify what it costs to be American and to be free and we've turned it into a day off work, a tent sale and a keg of beer."

This isn't to suggest people in this city don't care about veterans.

"When we went through the government shutdown, we were showered on by the public," said U.S. Coast Guard Master Chief Sean McMahon, who's stationed in Chattanooga. "It was a tale of two cities. It was best of times, the worst of times. It was bad when weren't getting a paycheck. But civilian after civilian poured into us. We ended up receiving thousands of dollars in support."

McMahon is a leader in the area veterans council.

Monday, they'll host a Memorial Day ceremony at the Chattanooga National Cemetery. (Begins at 9 a.m.)

"Just the simplest thing," he said. "When you see military around or see someone who's lost a military person, it's appropriate to thank them for the freedoms we have because of that loss."

There are many good and enjoyable things happening Monday.

This isn't to guilt-trip you out of any of them. (Like the Chattanooga Chase. The good folks at Fast Break Athletics are putting on the 51st annual road race.)

The pool. The lake. The start of summer. We shouldn't be embarrassed to have fun on Memorial Day.

But it's more than that.

Memorial Day must include the dead. The families they left behind. The call to service. Its grave costs.

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com.

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