I leaned against an oak at the side of the road, wishing I were invisible, keeping my distance from my parents on their lawn chairs and my younger siblings scampering about.
I hoped none of my friends saw me there. God forbid they caught me waving one of the small American flags Mom bought at Ben Franklin for a dime. At 16, I was too old and definitely too cool for our small town’s Memorial Day parade.
I ought to be at the lake, I brooded. But, no, the all-day festivities were mandatory in my family.
A high school band marched by, the girl in sequins missing her baton as it tumbled from the sky. Firemen blasted sirens in their polished red trucks. The uniforms on the troop of World War II veterans looked too snug on more than one member.
“Here comes Mema,” my father shouted.
Five black convertibles lumbered down the boulevard. The mayor was in the first, handing out programs. I didn’t need to look at one. I knew my uncle Bud’s name was printed on it, as it had been every year since he was killed in Italy. Our family’s war hero.
And I knew that perched on the backseat of one of the cars, waving and smiling, was Mema, my grandmother. She had a corsage on her lapel and a sign in gold embossed letters on the car door: “Gold Star Mother.”
I hid behind the tree so I wouldn’t have to meet her gaze. It wasn’t because I didn’t love her or appreciate her. She’d taught me how to sew, to call a strike in baseball. She made great cinnamon rolls, which we always ate after the parade.
What embarrassed me was all the attention she got for a son who had died 20 years earlier. With four other children and a dozen grandchildren, why linger over this one long-ago loss?
I peeked out from behind the oak just in time to see Mema wave and blow my family a kiss as the motorcade moved on. The purple ribbon on her hat fluttered in the breeze.
The rest of our Memorial Day ritual was equally scripted. No use trying to get out of it. I followed my family back to Mema’s house, where there was the usual baseball game in the backyard and the same old reminiscing about Uncle Bud in the kitchen.
Helping myself to a cinnamon roll, I retreated to the living room and plopped down on an armchair.
There I found myself staring at the Army photo of Bud on the bookcase. The uncle I’d never known. I must have looked at him a thousand times—so proud in his crested cap and knotted tie. His uniform was decorated with military emblems that I could never decode.
Funny, he was starting to look younger to me as I got older. Who were you, Uncle Bud? I nearly asked aloud.
I picked up the photo and turned it over. Yellowing tape held a prayer card that read: “Lloyd ‘Bud’ Heitzman, 1925-1944. A Great Hero.” Nineteen years old when he died, not much older than I was. But a great hero? How could you be a hero at 19?
The floorboards creaked behind me. I turned to see Mema coming in from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron.
I almost hid the photo because I didn’t want to listen to the same stories I’d heard year after year: “Your uncle Bud had this little rat-terrier named Jiggs. Good old Jiggs. How he loved that mutt! He wouldn’t go anywhere without Jiggs. He used to put him in the rumble seat of his Chevy coupe and drive all over town.
“Remember how hard Bud worked after we lost the farm? At haying season he worked all day, sunrise to sunset, baling for other farmers. Then he brought me all his wages. He’d say, ‘Mama, someday I’m going to buy you a brand-new farm. I promise.’ There wasn’t a better boy in the world!”
Sometimes I wondered about that boy dying alone in a muddy ditch in a foreign country he’d only read about. I thought of the scared kid who jumped out of a foxhole in front of an advancing enemy, only to be downed by a sniper. I couldn’t reconcile the image of the boy and his dog with that of the stalwart soldier.
Mema stood beside me for a while, looking at the photo. From outside came the sharp snap of an American flag flapping in the breeze and the voices of my cousins cheering my brother at bat.
“Mema,” I asked, “what’s a hero?” Without a word she turned and walked down the hall to the back bedroom. I followed.
She opened a bureau drawer and took out a small metal box, then sank down onto the bed.
“These are Bud’s things,” she said. “They sent them to us after he died.” She opened the lid and handed me a telegram dated October 13, 1944. “The Secretary of State regrets to inform you that your son, Lloyd Heitzman, was killed in Italy.”
Your son! I imagined Mema reading that sentence for the first time. I didn’t know what I would have done if I’d gotten a telegram like that.
“Here’s Bud’s wallet,” she continued. Even after all those years, it was caked with dried mud. Inside was Bud’s driver’s license with the date of his sixteenth birthday. I compared it with the driver’s license I had just received.
A photo of Bud holding a little spotted dog fell out of the wallet. Jiggs. Bud looked so pleased with his mutt.
There were other photos in the wallet: a laughing Bud standing arm in arm with two buddies, photos of my mom and aunt and uncle, another of Mema waving. This was the home Uncle Bud took with him, I thought.
I could see him in a foxhole, taking out these snapshots to remind himself of how much he was loved and missed.
“Who’s this?” I asked, pointing to a shot of a pretty dark-haired girl.
“Marie. Bud dated her in high school. He wanted to marry her when he came home.” A girlfriend? Marriage? How heartbreaking to have a life, plans and hopes for the future, so brutally snuffed out.
Sitting on the bed, Mema and I sifted through the treasures in the box: a gold watch that had never been wound again. A sympathy letter from President Roosevelt, and one from Bud’s commander. A medal shaped like a heart, trimmed with a purple ribbon. And at the very bottom, the deed to Mema’s house.
“Why’s this here?” I asked.
“Because Bud bought this house for me.” She explained how after his death, the U.S. government gave her 10 thousand dollars, and with it she built the house she was still living in.
“He kept his promise all right,” Mema said in a quiet voice I’d never heard before.
For a long while the two of us sat there on the bed. Then we put the wallet, the medal, the letters, the watch, the photos and the deed back into the metal box. I finally understood why it was so important for Mema—and me—to remember Uncle Bud on this day.
If he’d lived longer he might have built that house for Mema or married his high-school girlfriend. There might have been children and grandchildren to remember him by.
As it was, there was only that box, the name in the program and the reminiscing around the kitchen table.
“I guess he was a hero because he gave everything for what he believed,” I said carefully.
“Yes, child,” Mema replied, wiping a tear with the back of her hand. “Don’t ever forget that.”
I haven’t. Even today with Mema gone, my husband and I take our lawn chairs to the tree-shaded boulevard on Memorial Day and give our three daughters small American flags that I buy for a quarter at Ben Franklin.
I want them to remember that life isn’t just about getting what you want. Sometimes it involves giving up the things you love for what you love even more. That many men and women did the same for their country—that’s what I think when I see the parade pass by now.
And if I close my eyes and imagine, I can still see Mema in her regal purple hat, honoring her son, a true American hero.
There are certain incidents, indelibly etched on the memory of the American people, that have done much to shape our national character. Some, like 9/11, are still fresh in our minds. Others, like December 7th, 1941, are slipping away into the mists of time as the number of those who heard the dramatic news bulletins or experienced the attacks dwindles towards its inevitable destination.
Further in the past, events like Lexington and Concord, Washington crossing the Delaware, and the Battle of Yorktown have become the thing of myths. No one alive and no one who knew anyone alive at the time they occurred stills walks among us. We must rely on the historical record, embellished though it may at times be, to teach us what happened there.
Why these events are important though is a matter left to our judgment. Things change over time, as can be witnessed in the ongoing struggle to interpret — and reinterpret — the justifications for the American Civil War and the reasons men on both sides chose to fight.
It remains a divisive point in our history. At its end some were led out of bondage and into a form of freedom while others were to a degree subjugated as punishment for having been on the losing side. This was not what history tells us Abraham Lincoln wanted.
The vision of our martyr-president, laid out so eloquently by him in so many manuscripts and speeches still with us, was of a nation where all men and women were free and equal. He wanted a gentle peace, one that brought the people of the Union together once again as brothers and sisters. He made this clear many times, but perhaps best at the dedication of a cemetery for soldiers fallen in around Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
The battle itself is regarded as the turning point of the war. It was certainly a time of heroics, from Chamberlain’s Mainers surge down Little Round Top, out of ammunition and bayonets affixed, to Pickett’s Charge and beyond. It was three horrific days of brother fighting brother yet, less than 100 years later, veterans of the North and veterans of the South came together again in this same place as one, in memory of fallen comrades and looking ahead to a nation once again knitted together by the toil and sweat and allegiance to the same Constitution.
Let us remember this on Memorial Day as we remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our country and of the freedoms for which it stands as a bright light, signaling the preeminence of liberty on our shores to all the world.
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.
NOVEMBER 19, 1863
by Post Editorial Board • The New York Post
Memorial Day inspires mixed emotions: pride in the valor of those who gave their lives in the cause of freedom; sorrow that such self-sacrifice should have been necessary. Pride in past valor may be best expressed in the St. Crispin’s Day speech from “Henry V” (Act IV, Scene iii), delivered by the young king on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt.
That’s the question some are asking this Memorial Day weekend. In particular, they have in mind the 6,796 military men and women who have died fighting the War on Terror that began with an attack on this city.
It’s an understandable question after more than a decade of war. Even so, we suggest the emphasis is misplaced.
Those who gave their lives in the service of their nation are not victims. They were trained professionals, volunteers all, most of whom stepped forward after 9/11 to wear the uniform knowing the risks.
We are lucky to have such men and women, as well as those who have taken their places. Continue reading
by Peter Huessy
Memorial Day is a time of honoring our fallen heroes. Just as we should remember all who serve America in harm’s way.
At this we are not doing a very good job.
We are cutting hundreds of billions from our defense budget.
And we are not caring for our wounded soldiers as we promised.
And is has become fashionable once again to blame the terrorism we face not just on American foreign policy failures but on our very soldiers we send to defend our country. Continue reading