Not all trends in the New South are welcomed by traditional Southerners with an appreciation for history. In fact, their voices tend to be among the loudest decrying the increasing recreationalization of Memorial Day. It’s hard to disagree with their case.
I doubt very seriously that when Gen. John Logan proclaimed May 5, 1868, the first official Memorial Day he had pool parties, hot dogs on the grill and big-budget movie releases in mind. What’s now referred to as the “unofficial start of summer” does not have much to do with the sacrifices of America’s soldiers and their families.
My family’s route to church takes us through Duluth where twice a year the city’s streets are lined with flags. The week prior to and following Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day, flags attached to white crosses bearing the names of service men and women serve as a reminder to passersby that there is something real and meaningful happening. It semi-annually prompts interesting discussions with my children.
Because of the flags, I get the opportunity to tell my boys about the service of their grandfathers, my dad in the Air Force and my father-in-law in the Navy, and how my grandfather fought in two wars – World War II and Korea. I can connect the dots for them when we visit my parents’ house in Florida and they see the framed name badge and medals from my grandfather’s service.
Actually, the flags also serve as contemporary reminders that the United States continues to fight wars on two fronts. Americans are still giving their lives in defense of their country, and the day still has meaning for many families. As the World War II generation passes off the scene, we may be in real danger of losing Memorial Day. Oh, we’re not in danger of losing the three-day-weekend that marks the start of summer. Congress tried to debate that back in 1999, but no representative with an eye toward re-election would take away a working person’s three-day weekend.
No, the real threat is losing the connection with, pardon the cliché, the real meaning of Memorial Day. This isn’t a phenomenon unique to Memorial Day. I would argue it’s already happened to Thanksgiving (Black Friday Eve), Martin Luther King Jr. Day, President’s Day, Labor Day and maybe even Christmas.
In connecting the dots from grandfathers to military service to Duluth’s flags for my boys, the picture isn’t complete until the line reaches the conclusion of freedom. Ultimately, that’s what Memorial Day comes back to. Men and women freely offered up their lives, whether wittingly or unwittingly, in defense of their country. We remember them as we enjoy our freedoms.
So maybe there is a way to remember our war dead even as we stand in line at the Cineplex or clean off our grills for the first time since Labor Day. Perhaps as we attend pool parties with friends we can reclaim a sense of gratitude and even grief for the lives lost in the horrors of war.
It will require effort, and we have to be intentional about it, but Memorial Day in the New South doesn’t have to be just another three-day weekend.
To quote singer songwriter James McMurtry:
“It’s Memorial Day in America
Everybody’s on the road
Let’s remember our fallen heroes
Y’all be sure and drive slow.”