Memorial Day is about more than a day off work

April 29, 2011|Kate Coleman

The end of May signaled the beginning of summer in my Jersey shore childhood. School wouldn't be out for another couple of weeks. It might not be quite warm enough to go to the beach, but the feeling was distinct. Something in the sunlight and the way the air felt said spring was almost over, and the lazy, hazy days were not far off.

Memorial Day — then called Decoration Day — was the bridge that crossed the seasons for me.

It didn't become a national holiday on the last Monday of May until 1971, but it had been observed for a long time in American towns in the years immediately following the Civil War, according to information at

In May 1868, Decoration Day was proclaimed by Gen. John A. Logan, commander-in-chief of a fraternal organization of Union Army veterans, and flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.  

I remember Decoration Days from when I was a little kid. I'd go with my dad or my Aunt Mary and Uncle Jimmy to the two cemeteries where my relatives were buried. We'd plant red geraniums by their gravestones.

There were no veterans in our family plots. That would come years later. My dad served in the U.S. Army during World War II. He didn't see combat, but was stationed for a time in Italy. I have his dog tags and the ribbons and badges that decorated his uniform.

Dad and all six of my uncles were part of the "Greatest Generation" who served in the "Last Good War."

They did so without hesitation.

Young men and women still are doing that.

Things were different during the Vietnam War. I remember being in a college dorm room on Dec. 1, 1969, huddled in front of a tiny black-and-white television with a bunch of girls nervously awaiting the results of the Selective Service System's draft lottery. We knew boyfriends' and brothers' birthdays. Two of my friends drew the top two spots. They didn't have to serve, but the possibility certainly got our attention.

Our attention is not quite so fixed on the two conflicts in which our nation currently is engaged. News from Iraq and Afghanistan seems to be reported after everything else.

Pete Lancaster is paying attention. The local bluesman is known as the "wheelchair guy" at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. He's been driving there from his Greencastle, Pa., home four days a week for seven years — outfitting wounded young soldiers with equipment they'll need to live the rest of their lives. He's worked with "tons" of triple amputees. He recently saw two guys he'd equipped with chairs — who each have lost parts of both arms and legs — walking with prostheses.

As of Feb. 20, there have been 5,885 U.S. service members who have died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to "Faces of the Fallen" at

Take a look at those faces.

Remember them and those who might not have given the "last full measure of devotion" — but served with devotion nonetheless.

  We need to pay attention — and not just on Memorial Day.

Kate Coleman covers The Maryland Symphony and writes a monthly column for The Herald-Mail.

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