29 May 2005

Memorial Day Talk by Melissa

Tomorrow is a holiday.  I know my kids won't be attending school, and Darwin has the day off.  I know when I was a kid, there was always a family gathering or picnic to attend.  What I didn't realize was the importance of tomorrow's holiday or even what exactly it was about.

While I was researching this past week, to find out more about this holiday, I came across a speech given by Ira Joe Davis, a Lt. Col. in the Army, at a Memorial Day service in 1995.  I would like to share some of his speech with you.

Most of us are familiar with the old adage, "Old soldiers never die, they just fade away."  That saying is...untrue on two counts...  First of all, old soldiers do die, often in combat; and so do young soldiers, and sailors, and marines, and airmen.  Service members, young and old, men and women, from every branch of military service, die defending our country and our way of life.  They fight in popular and unpopular wars, in countries all over the world.  They carry the American flag, and the ideals and values for which it stands, to every corner of the world.  They don't go for glory, or honor, or fame.  They go because their duly elected officials, who represent the American people, including you and I, ask them to place themselves in harm's way.  They sacrifice family, friends, and often their lives, to serve their country.  The New Testament tells us that there is no greater love than to give your life for another.  Our fallen soldiers have demonstrated that love, and that is what Memorial Day is all about.

The second misconception is "that old soldiers just fade away."  Those...fallen soldiers didn't fade away.  In most cases, they were simply forgotten.  One reason for this is that the true meaning of Memorial Day has been lost by the majority of the American people.  To most Americans, Memorial Day is simply one of the federal holidays that bracket the summer season.  Memorial Day for them marks the beginning of the summer, the opening of the community swimming pool, the start of a family vacation, the first barbecue of the year, or a much-needed three-day weekend.  For the shopping malls and department stores, Memorial Day is an excuse for one more spectacular sales event.  Others confuse Memorial Day for Veterans Day of Armed Forces Day, and although it is highly appropriate to honor all our veterans, living and dead, and to recognize their immeasurable contributions to our country, that is not the purpose of tomorrow's holiday.

Memorial Day is an annual holiday to honor all Armed Services personnel killed in wars in the defense of our country.  It was originally called Decoration Day, and is traditionally marked by parades, memorial speeches, and the decoration of graves with flowers and flags.  It was first observed on 30 May, 1868, for the purpose of decorating the graves of American Civil War dead.  It was observed on 30 May until 1971, when most states adopted the newly established federal schedule for holiday observances.  In recent times we have also included fallen policemen and firemen, and others who gave their lives in the performance of their duties to our society.

There are many ways to observe Memorial Day.  One suggestion is to visit the cemetery and place a flag or flowers on the graves of the fallen heroes.  Other suggestions include visiting memorials, flying the U. S. flag at half-staff until noon, flying the POW/MIA flag, participating in the National Moment of Remembrance at 3 p.m., to pause and think upon the true meaning of the day and for Taps to be played.  Another tradition is to wear a red poppy.  I have seen the red poppies handed out at parades and in front of stores, but never knew what they signified.  A woman by the name of Miona Michaels was inspired by the poem "In Flanders Field" written by Major John McCrae in 1915.

McCrae's "In Flanders Field" remains to this day one of the most memorable war poems ever written.  It is a lasting legacy of the terrible battle in theYpres salient (a town in Belgium) in the spring of 1915.  Here is the story of the making of that poem:

Although he had been a doctor for many years and had served in the South African War, it was impossible to get used to the suffering, and Major John McCrea had seen and heard enough in his dressing station to last him a lifetime.

As a surgeon attached to the 1st Field Artillery Brigade, Major McCrae, who had joined the McGill faculty in 1900 after graduating from the University of Toronto, had spent seventeen days treating injured men -- Canadians, British, Indians, French, and Germans -- in Belgium.

One death particularly affected McCrae.  A young friend and former student, Lieut. Alexis Helmer of Ottawa, had been killed by a shell burst on 2 May 1915.  Lieutenant Helmer was buried later that day in the little cemetery outside McCrae's dressing station, and McCrae had performed the funeral ceremony in the absence of the chaplain.

The next day, sitting on the back of an ambulance parked near the dressing station beside the Canal, McCrae vented his anguish by composing a poem.

In the nearby cemetery, McCrae could see the wild poppies that sprang up in the ditches in that part of Europe, and he spent twenty minutes of precious rest time scribbling fifteen lines of verse in a notebook.

A young soldier watched him write it.  Cyril Allinson, a twenty-two year old sergeant-major, was delivering mail that day when he spotted McCrae.  The major looked up as Allinson approached, then went on writing while the sergeant-major stood their quietly.  "His face was very tired but calm as he wrote," Allinson recalled.  "He looked around from time to time, his eyes straying to Helmer's grave."

When McCrae finished five minutes later, he took his mail from Allinson and, without saying a word, handed his pad to the young NCO.  Allinson was moved by what he read:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, thought poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

"The poem was exactly an exact description of the scene in front of us both.  He used the word blow in that line because the poppies actually were being blown that morning by a gentle east wind.  It never occurred to me at that time that it would ever be published.  It seemed to me just an exact description of the scene." (Allinson)

In fact, it was very nearly not published.  Dissatisfied with it, McCrae tossed the poem away, but a fellow officer retrieved it and sent it to the newspapers in England.  The Spectator, in London, rejected it, but Punch published it on 8 December 1915.

Inspired by this poem, Moina Michael  replied with her own poem.

We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.

She then conceived of an idea to wear red poppies on Memorial Day in honor of those who died serving the nation during war.  She was the first to wear one, and sold poppies to her friends and co-workers with the money going to benefit servicemen in need.  Today, the poppies are assembled by disabled, needy and aging veterans in VA Hospitals across the country.  The money earned helps the veterans, and widows and orphans of veterans.

As we celebrate Memorial Day we should remember there are many American soldiers serving to defend our country right now.  All of them gave up something to serve.  Many of them are on foreign soil.  Most of them will return home safe and well, but some will return in a flag draped coffin.  I am thankful to have had the opportunity to learn more about Memorial Day.  I love this land that we live in and have neglected to pause and remember those who have given the ultimate sacrifice.  The danger in not remembering the sacrifices made by these men and women, is that as a nation, we may forget that the price of freedom is never cheap.  While we should honor these heroes everyday for the profound contribution they have mane to securing our Nation's freedom, we should honor the especially on Memorial Day.