When I think about Memorial Day weekend, I think of the origins of the holiday and how it has morphed over the years.
It was first observed as a tribute to American soldiers — Union and Confederate — who served in the American Civil War which began officially in 1861, 250 years ago. Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day then and as such was confirmed by an act of Congress at the conclusion of that war and was to be observed on May 30.
Recently, in a trip to the D.C. area I had the interesting and educational experience of visiting President Lincoln’s Cottage, which was where Lincoln and his family spent their summers after his inaugural year, also in 1861, 250 years ago.
The cottage is located in Northwest D.C. on the grounds of the Soldiers’ Home (now called the Armed Forces Retirement Home) which is still very much in use.
Lincoln’s Cottage sits on a picturesque hilltop with a commanding view of the area all the way to the Potomac River. It is considered the most significant historic site directly associated with the Lincoln presidency other than the White House to which Lincoln would ride the three miles by horseback each day, usually accompanied by soldiers who guarded the home at night and who were the forerunners of today’s Secret Service.
As we toured the spacious old house and peaceful gardens we saw several of the current residents of the next door Soldiers’ Home, wheeling themselves around the grounds.
Certainly I will think of them this Memorial Day as I recall what began as a day of remembrance for the more than 600,000 Americans killed or wounded in that “War Between the States.” Through the years and through the wars, that number of dead or wounded soldiers defending our independence and freedoms has grown exponentially to include the 320,000 killed or wounded in World War I, the more than one million in World War II, the 129,000 in the Korean War, the 211,000 in Vietnam, the 1,200 in the first Gulf War, and the still counting total of almost 50,000 in the war on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan. They total a staggering number of more than two and a quarter million casualties that we recognize on this day of remembering — young men and now young women who have been the victims of these wars.
Then I will think of what Memorial Day has become, particularly since 1968 when Congress passed the “Uniform Holidays Bill” which made long weekends around Washington’s birthday, Veterans Day and Memorial Day. No doubt all of these holidays have been commercialized.
Yet there still are local parades in many towns and cities and other traditions that continue such as the distribution by the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion of the bright red poppies as they have done since World War I.
Still today at Arlington National Cemetery and other military cemeteries, flowers are placed at gravestones and “Taps” is played to honor the fallen. And, in Arlington, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a special wreath will be placed by some dignitary. Actually, there now are two unknown soldiers, one from World War I and one from World War II and Korea. The latter unknown was chosen in a rather convoluted (by design) manner in order to be sure that no one would know whether he was from the Korean War or from the European or Pacific Theater in World War II. I had the unusual opportunity to be involved in that process, but that, while an interesting story, is for another day.
Far more interesting is that the interred unknown from Vietnam was actually identified by DNA and, therefore, no longer being unknown, was reburied and that Vietnam crypt of an unknown remains vacant.
Those are the memories I will conjure up for this Memorial Day.
However, today Memorial Day is not just for remembering. It is also a chance to get away for that long weekend. There are also bargains galore with the many sales that have become traditional for this holiday. Have we trivialized this solemn holiday?
And not to be overlooked, another American tradition celebrates its centennial this weekend and some 350,000 people will be attending the birthday party in person and many millions more will join in via television.
Oh sure, there will be a parade — more than one in fact. But speed will be the principal entertainment, but not the speed that is sometimes evident at parties which can cause considerable consternation and can often lead to problems with the law.
This is speed on the road, yet again is not the kind of speed that will draw a siren from the police or upset other drivers to the point where the newspapers will be deluged by letters protesting the failure of the authorities to ensure our safety on the road.
This speed will be confined to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which is 100 years old this year, having begun in 1911 where the first winning driver, Ray Harroun, drove his car an astounding — for that time — 75 miles per hour. Contrast that with last year’s winner, Dario Franchitti who completed the 200 lap race at a speed of 162 mph. In case you are curious, the fasted winning speed was posted by Arie Luyendyk in 1990 at 186 mph.
I have attended two and must have brought out the worst in the drivers. In one, the speed seemed closer to that of Harroun than Luyendyk. In the other, the race didn’t get off at all. It was postponed until the next day, but by then the luster had worn off and the crowd had evaporated like the rain. But that, too is a story for another day — a rainy day, of course.
These are my remembrances for the Memorial Day weekend.