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Monday, May 30, 2011

Monday Morning Musings: Reflections on Thee "Official" Memorial Day

Patricia Youngquist uses words and images to tell stories about her passions. Based in New York, she currently is authoring a series of nature books on birds of the city. Now in Apple’s iBooks store @

The photograph posted above, which was taken in the northwest corner of my urban terrace garden, features a few of my Roses — mugging a shot of my Rosmarinus officinalis (Rosemary), is quite apropos for this blog posting, because today is "officially" Memorial Day, and  roses are often laid at graves, while Rosmarinus officinalis, is the herb that signifies remembrance (as discussed in a prior posting on this blog which you may read by clicking here). 

In my blog entry this past Saturday, I wrote about the fact that the 30th of May, was initially set aside for observing Memorial Day, and, I pointed out that it is now celebrated on the last Monday in May, which this year is indeed May 30th. However, next year, Memorial Day, will be celebrated on May 28th 2012, which may bring back the perhaps much needed rhetoric to help re-educate and remind Americans of the true meaning of this solemn day. Details about these efforts can be found by clicking here.

As a child, I was very sensitive to the solemnity of Memorial Day, having had a father who served in the war, and, therefore, I was thrilled at the prospect to be able to participate in the Memorial Day Parade which marched down Main Street in my hometown. My being allowed to participate in the parade was due to the fact that I was a Brownie, and my troop, because of our service to the community, had been invited to join the commemoration of the solemn day.

My accounting of that experience is the following vignette extrapolated from my book, which tells about the consequences of growing up with legal blindness and Neurofibromatosis in the context of the 1960s and 1970s. It is written in a child's voice. (This book was referred to in a previous post which you may refer to by clicking here.)

This is the vignette: "Because I am nearly seven years old, I'm able to join the local Brownie troop. I like my pale brown scout uniform and dark-chocolate-colored cap with an orange design of a Brownie printed on it. Once at a troop meeting I made a papier-mâché puppet and gave it to the Children's Hospital in Chicago. I wanted to give it to them because, after watching President Kennedy's speech at the beginning of this year and hearing his words, 'Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,' I wanted to do something.

"Soon after hearing the speech and sending in my puppet, I was notified that my puppet had been chosen to be on The Lee Philip Show, a program that airs during the daytime. The news of my being chosen seems to worry my mother as she expresses to me that she thinks the other children who created puppets will be upset that their handmade toys were not selected. I had thought she'd be pleased for me, but sometimes she acts like it is wrong to succeed.

"I have a lot of badges for arts and crafts and am excited about marching in the Memorial Day Parade. After I put on the sash with all the badges I earned, my mother comes into my room with a yellow cardigan sweater and says I must wear it so I don't catch cold. Maybe she thinks it is wrong that I have so many badges and wants me to cover them. Still, I point out to her that it is a nice sunny day and that I am unlikely to get sick by not wearing a sweater. Unfortunately she won't listen. Instead, she shouts at me, insisting that if i want to march in the parade, I have to wear it. I want to cry because my badges won't show if I wear the sweater. For a moment, I daydream about arriving at the parade and setting the sweater on a bench. Then, I imagine marching down Main Street, with people ooh-ing and ah-ing at my badges. In the end though, I wear the dumb sweater because my mother is a troop leader, She will be marching too and I don't want her to hit me. All the girls in my troop laugh at me as we get ready for the procession. They mock me saying that I am a big baby because I have to wear a sweater.

"The next morning my mother wakes me up at six o'clock. She is holding a small, round gray suitcase and tells me that I have to go to the hospital to get my tonsils removed.'The operation is the reason I had you wear a sweater in the parade,' she tells me. Even though there had been no clouds in the sky and the temperature had been over eighty degrees yesterday morning, my mother insists that she, 'hadn't wanted me to catch a chill because the procedure would've been canceled.'

"I realize that she meant well, but I still think she should have told me about the operation before the parade so I could have explained why I had to wear the sweater to the girls in the troop. They probably would have thought I was cool. Instead, they said I was  baby.

"As we pack my suitcase for me to take to the hospital, my mother tells me that she needs to stay home with my sisters, so it is my father who takes me to the hospital. When I arrive, I notice that the girl in my room has one of the plant holders that I had made in a Brownie meeting. It is sitting on her nightstand, and I want to tell her that I made it, but I am afraid  that my father will think I'm bragging.

"The next thing I remember is waking up in a room of bright lights with people standing around wearing aqua-colored clothes. When I sit up, a nurse pushes me back down on the operating table, screams at me, saying that I woke up too soon. I open my mouth to apologize, but instead, I throw up blood."

I admit dear reader, that this might be TMI for a blog entry, but on the other hand, I hope it gives voice to those who had a similar experience either as a child wanting so much to be accepted, or gives consolation to a mother trying to make the right choices. Upon reflection, it looks like I was more interested in having folks who watched the parade see my badges than I was in being reverent to the solemn day, a consequence of being almost seven years old, I suppose.

Nonetheless, war, and the despair that it invoked, was a big part of my life. I was in high school in the 1970s, and I suppose some of my peers feared being drafted to serve in the Vietnam War. I say "suppose" because I did not share my feelings about anything with anyone during those years, but, I do recall having a crush on Hamil Miller, a fellow student in Creative Writing class who  wrote the following piece of fiction about the Vietnam War.  

"The shrill sound of the buzzer signified the end of the basketball game. It also meant that our high school had won its final game of the season. The locker room was like a mad house. Everybody was jumping up and down and hugging each other. Having won was especially great for me and a few other members of the team, because we were the seniors and it was our last game together.

"Two of my friends who felt the same way as I about having won were Paul and Steve, We did everything together. So joining the army all at the same time seemed very logical to us. In fact just joining the army seemed very logical since the United States was involved with Vietnam.

"All three of us had always been Gung-Ho about the Army. There had never been a doubt in my mind that we would all join upon graduating from high school. I remember that we used to make fun of long-haired or even short-haired kids at school when they would march in war moratoriums. It just never occurred to us to think if war was right or wrong. I can now admit that my friends and I were what is commonly known as jocks. A jock is a term applied to people that are Gung-Ho about anything and everything whether it is right or wrong.  I find it very easy to call myself and my friends jocks. I think it fits our actions perfectly. It's just a shame that my friends cannot be here today to experience my realization. Both of my friends are dead now. Friends that I did everything with as a kid. They were killed in Vietnam.

"Paul was killed by an enemy he never saw or knew. He stepped on a booby trap which blew him apart. Steve was shot through the head while climbing from a helicopter to invade a small village which came back under Communist control the very next day.

"I am a bit luckier than my late friends or am I?  I have been laid up in a hospital bed for six months now and am missing only half of my intestinal tract. My injury being due to a hot piece of shrapnel that came screaming into my stomach. I wonder if it would have been better to have been killed with my friends than to feel this great bitterness I have. At least if I had died I would not know that they and many others had died fighting a senseless war which does not even threaten our own shores.

"Yes, my friends and I went to war under false pretenses. We thought that it would be a simple game. War is a game — a game that cost lives to play. The lives are usually spent by very narrow minded men behind desks. I know now as most men that men that go off to war expecting a game to be simply played, that there are no locker room celebrations."

Hamil Miller, the author of this essay, died in a horrific car crash soon after turning in his assignment. Hamil Miller was a high school senior (and I was a high school sophomore at the time). Hamil was the object of many school-girl "crushes" — including one from yours truly. Our devastated Creative Writing  teacher, in an effort to console us students, mimeographed copies of Hamil's last essay, and this essay, along with my P.O.W. Bracelet  bearing the name Major Ernest Olds (which I wrote about this past Saturday), are the only things I've kept from those school girl days.

I have kept the P.O.W. Bracelet because of my reverence to the cause, and, I've kept the essay because I had thought it would be nice to write about it one day, and now I finally am; on this solemn day, when we not only honor those who lost their lives in war, but, also recall all of those deeply affected by the devastation of war. Therefore, dear reader, once again, I will recall a José Narosky's quote mentioned in my Veterans Day blog entry, "In war, there are no unwounded soldiers."

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