There are still some Americans — unreconstructed traditionalists — who believe May 30 should be the holiday for honoring the nation’s war dead and those who survived wars but who have since passed from this life.
We reject the notion that Memorial Day — originally called Decoration Day because families and friends of the fallen decorated their graves with flowers and flags — should have been moved for the frivolous reason of giving federal workers a long weekend.
My first real memory of the holiday was in 1958. I was a 9-year-old Army brat, the son of a career soldier stationed at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. My father, the first sergeant of an engineering company, had the day off, and the on-post elementary school was closed in observance of the holiday.
My parents wanted me to see the TV news coverage of the ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery. There, two unidentified American soldiers, one from World War II and the other from the Korean War, were placed in what was then the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I.
I cannot honestly say that I comprehended what I was seeing, but I never forgot it.
For myself and most of the other boys in the neighborhood of enlisted families, we wanted to be like our fathers. We wanted to be soldiers, and we often played war games in the woods nearby. Our parents knew firsthand about war, but they let us have our fun. With our cap guns and water pistols, we were ready if Russia dared to attack.
As the years passed, we understood that real war is for keeps. It was not a game. Those who were shot and fell down dead did not go home for supper or to do homework.
During my high-school and college years, the reality of what war was came into our living rooms during the supper hour, when the network news featured footage of the fighting and dying in Vietnam.
The first soldier killed in Vietnam from my hometown, Bristol, Tennessee, was a member of the church to which I belonged at the time. His death jarred and jolted the city. Indeed, war was not a thrill game.
“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: when I became a man, I put away childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11).
Now, on Memorial Day, I think about the fallen and the Gold Star families. I also call to mind the families of those whose loved ones never came home and who still may be alive in captivity in places such as North Korea or Laos. There are still occasional reports of live Americans languishing in lands where no one can hear them scream. Those still missing deserve attention on the real Memorial Day.
There is one more reason why May 30 is special to me: My paternal grandfather died on that date in 1967. The wounded World War I veteran passed away just days before my high-school graduation. I honor him.