Monday, May 28, 2007

On Remembrance

Does anyone remember that today is the official observance of Memorial Day? How many have any recollection as to what it's about, other than sales, the beach, barbecue, the "first weekend of the summer" and the Indy 500?

Damned few, apparently.

Collectively, we ought to be ashamed of ourselves.

However, there'll be little shame shown; the only thing that there'll be less of is honor paid to the subjects of the holiday, which are veterans of this country's armed forces who've died in the line of duty. Secondarily, it's to honor those currently serving as well. Veterans Day was not originally called that; it was Armistice Day, marking the end of World War I. Now, it's supposed to be in honor of all veterans from all eras.

But back to the Memorial Day for members of our armed forces who died in the line of duty, and including members who served, while not dying in the line of duty, who are no longer with us. That's what they taught me in school, anyway; I still remember that. I'm also prompted by the memory that my grandfather, a World War I veteran, died on Memorial Day in 1971. Now it includes my father, who had twenty one years of active service in the Navy, including two tours in the Viet Nam area. Granted, he was a dentist & therefore a non-combatant, but that doesn't mean he wasn't in a position to get shot at & killed. He was aboard the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk, and would go up in a plane as regulations required if he wanted to have "flight surgeon" status. It wasn't a matter of status, he did it because there was a pay bonus and he had a family back home. Fortunately, no MiG ever paid a visit while he was up there. He passed away several years ago, near Memorial Day.

I'll always remember the burial service for a lot of reasons, but one of them was the full military honors he received as he was interred in a lovely veterans section of the cemetery in which he lies. The playing of Taps, the rifle salute.... and then, they took the shells of the rounds fired for the salute, and wrapped them in the flag that had covered the coffin, and presented it to my mother. The attending commander of the detail (a woman, incidentally. My father would probably have found that a bit odd) then gave a short speech on behalf of the Commander in Chief, thanking her & the family for his service to our country. Simple, yet dignified and to the point. It also recognizes in this time of grieving that it isn't only veterans that sacrifice, but their families as well. For one lost in combat or otherwise in the line of duty, it's a life cut short; the ultimate price paid, which is supposed to be in defense of our country and our freedom. But even during peacetime, families are regularly uprooted, moved around, and sent along with the service member to new locations. Most of us who are children of a military family have no "home town", we've left our best friends behind multiple times only to have time and distance cause many of them to fade away, and we've changed school systems repeatedly. It's not an easy way to grow up.

Well, that's a price, too, and one that's most often ignored these days except when yet another death from Iraq is reported. In past years, it was primarily wives who found themselves having to take on the jobs of both parents when their husbands were on assignment or out at sea (this, of course, has greatly changed, but not in my parents' generation). Families of submariners might be out of direct contact with their service member for as long as eighteen months. Memorial Day is a day we should stop and pay honor to the families, too. Military spouses and children have always been a part of the service in their own way, being the most direct supporters of the individuals in the service, and going where the country has told them to go.

It's true that I've described a number of reasons why Memorial Day is more personal to me than a lot of people, but that is not the way it should be. We're all the beneficiaries of the sacrifices and the service, so how dare we take it so lightly? And yet, the newspaper today is full of sales flyers and blather about summer, and vacations, and the price of gas (which, incidentally, was $1.46 a gallon on January 20, 2001. You figure it out). I had to look on page three of the local section to find any mention of Memorial Day observances. There are no parades scheduled, no speeches, no large solemnities. No ceremonies at any of the national cemeteries in the area. No, in the two county area, there are exactly three things listed: A small memorial service held by this county's Veterans Council, another in the neighboring county held by the VFW, and one concert. And that's all. It gets more dismal: I took a drive up & down the eight-block-long street on which we live. I didn't count the actual number of houses, but it's around fifty or so. The number of houses, including mine, flying an American flag today:


That seems pretty representative of the prevailing attitude these days.

Don't misunderstand me, I am not a flag-waving, no-questions-asked ultraconservative who gives support blindly; quite the contrary. However, I do know when respect has been earned and should be paid. I am an opponent of the war in Iraq and no supporter of the man who started it under false pretenses. Nonetheless, not for one minute will I disregard the service and the price that has, is being, and is unfortunately will continue to be paid there by members of our military and their families. I also won't forget the number of innocent Iraqis who've died. Contrary to what the administration would have us believe, there are lots of innocents dying there. "Collateral damage", indeed; the term is vulgar and distasteful.

So, before I digress too much farther, as is my usual wont, Id ask of you to please take at least a few moments to remember those who've died in the line of duty for our country, those who served and were therefore always at risk, and the families left behind. It's not so much to ask, and this is supposed to be the day that we all do it together. As a nation, we've utterly failed in this capacity. If nothing else, think of what it would mean to the families in your community that have lost someone in Iraq and Afghanistan, or who have a loved one there and wake up every morning hoping to God not to have that knock on the door by an officer from their branch of the service bearing grim news. Can we not have the decency to demonstrate that we care? Or does the problem lie in the fact that we largely don't care? That's a point that I'd rather not give myself time to think about.

Instead, I'll think about my mother, who will travel to the local cemetery today for a visit, with perhaps some fresh flowers or something to plant. I'd go with her, but there's this 1,100 mile distance in between. She'll act as proxy for myself and my other siblings who are far removed. Thanks, Mom.

And thanks, Dad, and all the others who are the titular honorees of Memorial Day. Thanks to everyone who remembers and has done at least something (as simple as flying a flag that costs less than ten dollars, pole included) to show that they do.

To the rest of you, enjoy your long weekend.... and when July 4th rolls around, and you come out to have a good time once again on the day that we observe the founding of this country and the principles upon which it is supposed to rest, take a look back over your shoulder and feel a pang of regret that on the day that you should have remembered the people who paid the price to get those freedoms and keep them, that you let them down.

Taps hasn't been sounded yet, however; there's still a bit of the day left. Take a moment and remember, and do not take for granted the fact:

They never let you down.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Unavoidable Inevitable

Time is a royal pain; it's a pain in several prominent places, which I need not mention, and the more time that passes, the more places upon which it inflicts pain.

Now, in theory, this is perfectly alright (though I'd like to know according to exactly who) because it's happening to everyone else at the same time and at the same rate. On a practical basis, we know that this is nonsense. Clearly, time affects some people more than others, or, at the very least, it sure seems to hit some faster than others.

In a month, this will be demonstrated aptly. Though I should like to deny it, that's when my 30th high school reunion will be taking place. Mind you, I'm not actually old enough for that to be the case; simply put, time has ravaged me less than a lot of the others, to which I can attest based on my observations at the 25th reunion.

At this point, everyone might as well throw in the towel. Face it, friends, you've lost all the weight you're going to lose (if you were trying), you can't get a new toupee in time, getting a real tan (as opposed to those awful bronzing products, which turn your skin a color that screams "Carrot Top") is out of the question, and all that dental work you've been putting off is beyond your reach. The window for plastic surgery has been slammed shut, which isn't going to help those arthritic fingers. The best you're going to be able to do is to get your hair colored, and at our age, the cosmetic lie is both gratuitous and obvious.

Look, everyone is going to feel like they're under a microscope and that every little flaw and telltale sign of age will be lit up like a whored-up Christmas tree. Let me put everyone's mind at ease and settle this question right now: Suck it up, it's true. Of course they'll notice! The majority of the memories that we all carry of one another are, uh, of a fine vintage. Personally speaking, I think some of us look a lot better now. I might even say so to some of those people. But not all of them, because deep down inside, warping my perspective and sense of reason on the issue, I'll be jealous and angry.

Then again, I have my own advantages with which to coddle myself, to engage in a sense of denial and convince myself that they far outweigh the less-than-desirable changes that have occurred over the years. The fact that I still have all my hair will upset a lot of guys. No, I'm skipping the dye job. It's about 15% grey, and I can live with it. Women tell me it looks "distinguished", and for the sake of vanity, I choose to believe them. Since I avoid the sun like the plague (unless wearing SPF 2000 sunscreen), I have no wrinkles on my face. That'll hack off a lot of the women, who will regret the sun-worship of their youth. What else? Uh, reach for it.... no arthritis, though it would be a terribly low blow to mock someone for it, and even I won't stoop that low. I'll be among the approximately 27% who've never been divorced, and to my great relief at this point in my life, I don't have grandchildren yet, which I know that some of my former classmates do. You cannot avoid being grown-up and expected to act like it if you have grandchildren. Thanks, I'll be glad to wait.

Forgive me if I choose not to dwell on my "debit" qualities, but that's what denial is all about, isn't it? I just hope things don't devolve into uncharitable comparisons of what everyone has "achieved in life". This isn't fair because life is not fair, and nobody should be looked down on because they haven't had any of the lucky breaks that others have. It's also a mistake to interpret another person's life goals in terms of your own. You can't presume to know what makes another person tick; hell, I don't even know what makes me tick.

Actually, that isn't true. However, some of my proudest achievements on Maslow's pyramidic hierarchy won't make sense to most people, and I'm at a loss for an effective way to explain a lot of it. Fortunately, there's always the excuse that I'm an artist, and artists are legally exempt from having to explain themselves.

No, I intend to have a good time, and try my best not to worry about what other people think about me. Besides, some of my energy will be spent tracking down members of the reunion committee, as I've a bone or two to pick with them. It's faboo that they've taken the initiative, time, and expended the energy to arrange the reunion, and I give them their due kudos for it. However, the theme of this reunion is Jimmy Buffett's "Cheeseburger in Paradise". Would that I were making it up. At least I won't have to worry about dressing nicely (a thing I hate to do); the official garb is cargo shorts, flip-flops, and Hawaiian shirts (the latter I have yet to find). And therein lies my last advantage where inevitable comparisons are concerned:

I do have pretty nice legs.