29 May 2006 by Published in: General musings 6 comments

I’m up very early this morning, which is very unusual for a national holiday. The dogs, and in particular, Aurora, were very restless this morning, so much so, in fact, that I figured it would be better all around if I just took them downstairs and let Susan sleep, things would ultimately be better for everyone. Being up this early enabled me to spend a few minutes reflecting on the true meaning of today’s holiday.

In the spring of 1866, a scant year after the end of the Civil War, Henry Welles, a pharmacist from upstate New York, came up with the idea to honor the dead of the recent conflict by decorating their graves. By 1868, Decoration Day was being observed officially throughout the north. In 1971, Congress decreed that the holiday’s name be changed to Memorial Day, which would be celebrated on the final Monday of each May. For many (if not most), it marks the unofficial beginning of summer and provides a day off from work for most of the population.

While many celebrate their day off with cook-outs and the year’s first trip to the swimming pool, it’s important to remember the true meaning of this holiday: honoring the memory of those who gave the last full measure of their devotion to defend the liberty of this country and its people.

My father will be 86 years old in August, meaning that he was 21 in December 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He is a part of what journalist Tom Brokaw rightfully calls the greatest generation, which was that generation of Americans who won World War II. He was employed building warplanes, so he was never drafted. However, two of his brothers served. My uncle Murray was a pharmacist, so he spent most of the war working in a hospital, taking care of wounded men. My uncle Mort was a staff sergeant who commanded an Army Air Corps maintenance crew. He was at Kasserine Pass, and then fought his way up the boot of Italy. He died in 1980, while I was a sophomore in college. During my not-quite nineteen years with him, I only got him to talk about the war once, and then for only a few minutes. It is one of my deep regrets that I never got a chance to record his story for posterity, for it is now lost forever. He gave me my first Civil War books–Bruce Catton’s trilogy on the Army of the Potomac when I was in the fourth grade–and I was always especially close to him.

I also had a brother-in-law who was a career Marine. Joe had been in the Corps for something like eighteen years when he died on active duty in 1996. Joe was a staff sergeant who was about to be promoted to gunnery sergeant. He had served in Panama, Somalia, and in Desert Storm, among other conflicts. His unit was the first to hit the beach in Kuwait City in 1991, and we believe that he may have been exposed to caustic chemicals along the way, because this man, who died at age 36, who was in peak physical condition, and who never smoked a day in his life, was the victim of a very rare and aggressive form of lung cancer that took his life within six months of diagnosis.

These three veterans have touched my life in a real way, and none of them are here for me to thank in person for their sacrifices on my behalf. I regret that they aren’t, but there isn’t much I can do about that. We’re losing World War II veterans at the rate of 1,000 per day, and before long, there won’t be any left. Korean War veterans aren’t far behind, and even Vietnam War vets are now in their fifties and early sixties.

If you know a veteran, please take a moment today and thank him or her for their service and for what they do to safeguard the liberties that we enjoy today. And please remember Abraham Lincoln’s words at the dedication of the National Cemetery in Gettysburg in November 1863:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

And here’s to the memory of Sgt. Morris Wittenberg, U.S. Army Reserve, Staff Sgt. Morton L. Wittenberg, U. S. Army Air Corps, and Staff Sgt. Joseph R. Pacitto, USMC. Thank you for everything that you did to ensure the liberty that we enjoy today. Let’s just hope that we still have some civil liberties left when the felon leaves the White House in 2008 (a day that CANNOT come soon enough), and that their sacrifices will still mean something.

Scridb filter

Comments

  1. Mike Peters
    Mon 29th May 2006 at 12:35 pm

    During my not-quite nineteen years with him, I only got him to talk about the war once, and then for only a few minutes. It is one of my deep regrets that I never got a chance to record his story for posterity, for it is now lost forever.

    Eric:

    I finally talked to my uncle, about his war experiences, a year before he succumbed to emphysema. I regret that I didn’t ask questions earlier or tape the concersation . Man it was good stuff– Battle of the Bulge, Big Red1, Nazi POW camp! What this generation went through so we can live the way to which we’re accustomed.

    I’m betting our Uncles are having a couple of cold ones & telling old war stories, as we all should do in rememberance of those who served our country.

    Happy Memorial Day!

    Mike

  2. Mon 29th May 2006 at 2:46 pm

    Eric well done, very touching. I also did something similar today on my blog.

  3. Mon 29th May 2006 at 4:16 pm

    Thanks, guys. Mike, I’m quite certain that they would have had a good discussion.

    Perhaps they are. 🙂

    Eric

  4. Brad Snyder
    Mon 29th May 2006 at 7:42 pm

    Eric:

    Thanks for your heartfelt tribute to Memorial Day. To far too many people, Memorial Day is just an excuse for a three day weekend. Many others, including often the media, lose sight of the true meaning of this holiday and instead of focusing on those who have defended our country, treat the holiday as just an opportunity to remember all those who have passed away, whether they were in the military or not.

    My highlight for the weekend was to visit, with my father, some of my ancestor’s graves, including William Henry Harrison Phillips of the 64th Ohio Infantry, killed in the battle of Stones River.

    Happy Memorial Day!

    Brad

  5. wade sokolosky
    Sat 03rd Jun 2006 at 1:14 am

    Eric,

    Thanks for the post. Our service men and women need the support of our fellow citizens. I so wish my dad ( Staff Sgt. John Sokolosky / WW2 veteran) was a live today to see the great things his Army is doing against the war on terrorism. I know he would be equally proud to know his two grandsons have volunteered to serve this nation during a time of War.

    Thanks for the support!!

    LTC Wade Sokolosky

  6. Mon 05th Jun 2006 at 10:12 pm

    Wade,

    My pleasure. You guys deserve all of our support.

    Eric

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