Memorial Day used to be Decoration Day, a day set aside to decorate the graves of those killed in war. Originally, it was the thirtieth of May. Since then, of course, Congress has changed the name and institutionalized the date so it falls on the last Monday of May. And the holiday has gotten a lot more diversified.
Back when it was Decoration Day, life was pretty simple and so was the holiday. Just about every town in the country had a memorial of some kind dedicated to local men who died during World War I. Many of these towns later added the names of those who died during World War II, the Korean War, and in Vietnam.
Decoration Day usually featured a parade made up of local school bands, a few cars with dignitaries, representatives from local VFW and American Legion posts, a color guard, and troops of marching veterans. The parade always ended at the war memorial. Then somebody would make a speech about freedom and the need to sometimes put our lives on the line to defend it, an honor guard would fire a twenty-one-gun salute, and someone from the high school band would play taps on his trumpet.
Then folks would drift away to the ice cream parlor for a sundae before going home to think about supper and listen to the ball game on the radio. Those who lost sons or fathers in the war often spent some time at the cemetery. There were flowers, of course, and flags. Small United States flags decorated the graves of all those killed in war. Most people also had flags flying at their homes as a reminder of why their sons and fathers had died.
Over time, Decoration Day absorbed other national tributes. It heralded the beginning of summer and what has become known in our nation as the cookout season. Nowadays the entire countryside smokes with the pungency of grilled hot dogs and hamburgers on Memorial Day weekend. Aliens from outer space would think the planet was on fire.
It also announced the start of swimming season at city pools. In the northern reaches of the Midwest where I grew up, venturing into the arctic waters of the local pool on the last day in May was not for the faint of heart. I used to watch the local high school football heroes take the plunge and try to act casual in front of their girlfriends as they turned blue. Now, of course, people have pools in their backyards. Many are heated, and pool parties often start right after spring thaw.
Memorial Day still has a lot of the original Decoration Day flavor. Many towns still have parades honoring veterans and paying tribute to those who died in combat. All our National Cemeteries have somber ceremonies, and each white grave marker is adorned with a flag. It’s hard to keep a dry eye when confronted with all those flags fluttering in the breeze.
This year in New York, Memorial Day coincided with Fleet Week, a celebration of sea power. Naval vessels from all over the world sailed into New York Harbor to join our nation in a worldwide tribute to the victims of war and the desperate need for world peace.
The sports world takes its place during the weekend, too. The NBA playoffs roll on and big league baseball almost always has a full schedule of games on tap. In Indianapolis, of course, a month of nervous automotive energy beckons upwards of a half-million race fans to the city, where it culminates in a noisy and boisterous afternoon of expensive car racing.
I went to the race a few times as a fan, and then spent the entire month of May one year photographing race activities for a wire service. All month long I stood in the short shoot between turns three and four following the blur of race cars in my viewfinder. Most of the pictures I got were static shots of cars on the track. One, however, was a picture of a tire. The car it had been part of had just slammed into the wall, and the rear wheel was launched through space on a trajectory aimed at the precise spot where I was standing. I snapped the shutter and dove for the ground. The tire missed me by inches, and I retired from race photography immediately after.
These days I spend Memorial Day weekend listening to the race on the radio, checking baseball scores, nervously watching the Pacers inch their way toward fame and fortune, and cooking burgers on the grill.
And, oh, yes, I still take a few minutes to remember those I used to know who died in World War II, in Korea, and in Vietnam. And I say a small prayer that one day Memorial Day will be nothing but a history lesson celebrated in the midst of world peace.