My first memory of Memorial Day was as a Cub Scout. Our unruly group of flag-toting boys lined up for a parade between a high school band and a Lincoln convertible the size of a yacht. Before the parade I wandered over to inspect the car. Several older men wearing military uniforms and VFW caps were wedged into the vehicle, amiably chatting with each other. One noticed me staring at them, smiled, and gave me a crisp salute. Being the first salute I’d ever received, I stiffened as if struck by an unseen force, and returned the gesture as best I could. With the wrong hand, it turned out.
The men laughed and one said, “I think he’ll make a good Marine.” Just then, one of the fathers of my group appeared, greeted the men in the car, and asked me, “Do you know who these gentlemen are?” I replied, “Soldiers?” A man in the front seat said, “We used to be. A long time ago.” The father said, “They’re heroes. They’re why we’re all here today.” I didn’t know if “here” meant the parade, or something else, like my existence. Maybe both.
The man who saluted me said, “Oh, we’re not heroes. The heroes are the guys who didn’t make it back.” The other passengers nodded in silent agreement. On the way back to our assigned spot in the parade, the dad leaned down and whispered, “Don’t let them fool you. They’re heroes; every one of them.” The parade concluded at the town cemetery, where my group had spent the previous afternoon placing little flags near certain headstones. Now I witnessed those men from the big Lincoln standing very erect at those markers. They appeared to stare right through the inscribed stones, seeing something I could not.
Over time I occasionally encountered of one of those veterans as I made the rounds on my bike in my small town. One man was our butcher. Another operated a lawn service. One was my retired neighbor who restored Model A Fords and walked with a pronounced limp.
Previously, none of those perfectly normal men had struck me as particularly heroic. They were merely part of the fabric of our community, going about their business. As they’d agreed on the day of the parade, the real heroes – according to them - were buried in far-away and hard-to-pronounce places, or at our local cemetery. The vets never spoke of their fallen comrades, much less of their own experiences. That was their way.
But participating in a Memorial Day parade was something they understood as a necessary piece of our social contract to not forget the terrible thing they had endured as citizen-soldiers, with the goal that we would not need to endure it. When the times called for it, they had sacrificed their individual needs for the sake of the whole. I call that heroic.
In this moment of COVID-19, we don’t know what the end of it will be, or when. Our communal loss and grief and anxiety are real. To protect our collective public safety, one loss we’re experiencing are annual events which help us mark time, reflect, and celebrate. Graduations, birthday parties. And now, we’ll have no official parade or gatherings at gravesites to commemorate Memorial Day. We have such days to honor sacrifices made for our sake, and to point out to children the heroes in our midst. There’s great value in that.
Lately, some of our fellow citizens are reacting to social distancing and stay-at-home measures with indignation, the belief that they are being forced to sacrifice too many personal freedoms, and apparent disregard for the health of others. From what I gather of their rhetoric, individual needs trump those of the many. Incongruously, this conceit is packaged as patriotism.
My concept of sacrifice and patriotism differs. It is for a cause larger than oneself. In key moments in history, heroic people have given of themselves – sometimes to the last breath – not for their own sake but for the sake of their fellows. That’s the basis of honor. The personal sacrifices we may be making today to stem the spread of a deadly virus, don’t even begin to compare to those made by the countless individuals who gave the last full measure of their devotion to preserve the safety and freedom of the whole.
Memorial Day reminds us of that. This year we will mark that day in a more subtle way, without marching bands or Cub Scouts holding flags or veterans waving from convertibles. But the manner in which we celebrate won’t change the fact that we will never forget the everyday people who died to ensure that we could all be here today. And we can still reach out to those who continue to go quietly about their business, who were willing to make the sacrifice, and say, “Thank you.”