It’s always been easy for me to remember Memorial Day. It always used to be May 30th, and we used to call it “Decoration Day”, a tradition that goes back to 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at the Arlington National Cemetery.
In May of 1949, my mom and dad were at the Decoration Day ceremony at what used to be called “North Park” in Oshkosh. Dad was a combat infantryman in the 96th Infantry. He volunteered for the draft right out of Oshkosh High School in 1942. First he helped General Patton win the war in Europe, earning a number of medals and decorations he never talked about. Then he served in the Army of Occupation in Japan.
He came home in 1946 and used the G I Bill to enroll at Oshkosh State Teachers College, married my mom in 1948, and on 30 May 1949, he and my nine-months-pregnant mom were at the Decoration Day ceremony at the park. As the solemn ceremony moved forward, military and civic officials laid a wreath on the waters of Lake Winnebago to commemorate the many lives lost at sea in the big war.
The story is told that when the uniformed soldiers in the honor guard at the ceremony raised their rifles to give the 21-gun salute to those who died in combat, my very-pregnant mother suddenly realized that the baby she was carrying must have heard the gunshots, and wanted out.
They went literally across the street to Mercy Hospital, and I was born a few hours later on May 31st, 1949, a true “baby boomer”. So it’s easy for me to remember Memorial Day, and why the holiday exists.
Congress, which fiddles around with everything, decided Decoration Day should be called Memorial Day, and eventually moved the observation to the last Monday in May.
A few years ago one of the young, part-time talk show hosts on the station I used to work for was going on and on about Memorial Day and how this is a day set aside to honor all our soldiers and sailors and troops who serve or have served in the armed services. When he went to a commercial break, I called him up on the “secret hotline” and explained that he had confused Memorial Day with Veterans Day.
I had to give this 20-something young man a history and civics lesson in about 60 seconds. He claimed he’d never been told the difference. They don’t have “civics” in schools these days, do they? Too many people like this young man don’t know much about the sacrifices families made back in the 40’s, and how many of the so-called greatest generation never came home from the war.
So, fire up the grill and enjoy the day off. But if you have kids, take just a moment to explain to them what we’re remembering on Memorial Day.