Back in the summer of 1997, I needed a summer school credit in order to graduate. So I signed up for ENC 1001, English Composition (I wanted an easy A). There were a variety of writing topics, but one of them was a "saturation" paper. The idea was for a group of students to go to a location as a group, immerse ourselves in the surroundings and write about the things we saw, trying to be as descriptive as possible.
Our group met at the now-defunct Rio Bravo Cantina on Baymeadows Road in Jacksonville, FL. There were six of us and we ordered our meal and then began the writing assignment. We went on 27 May 1997, the Tuesday after Memorial Day. I wrote this paper for that class as a reflection on what Memorial Day means.
Since then, I often wonder how different this essay might be if I wrote it today. After six years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the surge of patriotism that occurred after 9/11, I hope that we appreciate the day more than I thought our nation did back in 1997. Also, I now get to work with and for veterans, giving me a much different perspective than I had back in college.
I hope you all will take an opportunity today to thank the family of someone who died in our armed services, whether it was in battle, in training or as long-standing residuals from war wounds. They have all earned our gratitude.
They gather among the clamouring waiters, sizzling food and pseudo-ethnic music. At one table, four balding, middle-aged men sit around discussing their company's business. A group of five employees, their skin red from being in the sun the day before, stands around idly, milking the time clock. A family sits at a table immersed in conversation.
Today is the day after Memorial Day; it is the first day back from a long weekend. Nothing more. Any significance of the day before has been long lost, if it even existed at all. Memorial Day has become simply a day off from work, a three-day weekend and an excuse to drink beer while grilling hot dogs.
Established in order to commemorate soldiers fallen in the service of our country, Memorial Day used to be an occasion for parades, speeches and solemn vigils. The local armoury would empty of tanks, trucks and jeeps. Soldiers donned their dress uniforms and regimental colours; in long, straight formations they marched along to the delight of spectators and children. Fighter planes filled the sky, the sound from their jets resonating in the air, and their contrails criss-crossing in the afternoon breeze.
Kind words were spoken of the dead, of how they made the "supreme sacrifice" for their country. Flags were lowered to half-staff. Men, some grizzled old veterans, others self-important politicians, stood at podiums and made speeches honouring those who died in all the wars America has fought. It used to be a day of patriotism and nationalistic spirit. Unlike Flag Day, or Independence Day, Memorial Day was not for America's collective vanity; it was not a day to pat ourselves on the back and espouse all the ways Americans dominate global affairs. Nor was it for recognising the service of all the men and woman who carried the nation's colours into battle like Veteran's Day.
Memorial Day was a reflective time. A day when we mourned those killed serving the Stars and Stripes. Flags adorned the graves of soldiers returned from foreign lands where they died. Mothers, sisters, brothers, widows, children and descendants of dead warriors gathered at grave sites to hold on to fleeting memories and wonder, "What might have been..."
That was then. Today, four men sit at a table, devouring a lunch charged to a corporate expense account. Their conversation is all business; they left the office, but brought their work to the table. All four are balding, their hair prematurely grey. Each wears a shirt and tie, and they all speak in low, hurried tones. The men talk about money: how to make it, how to hoard it, how to generate more. When the conversation strays, it is only to reach a consensus that the three-day weekend interrupted their stock trading.
Memorial Day inconvenienced these men. They couldn't stop for one day to honour the tens of thousands of men and women who died so they could trade freely in a market economy. In the middle of the 19th Century, economic differences divided this country into two warring factions. One side was mired in an anachronistic command economy, its serfs bonded only because of the colour of their skin. The other side, though no less racist, fought for a truly free market, a fledgling industrial economy which formed the basis for these men's livelihood.
On 13 December 1862, the two sides met on a hill outside of Fredericksburg, Virginia. It was cold, and snow covered the ground. Rebel troops held a high stone wall, their guns pointed down at an army of blue-clad Federal forces. Eight thousand men were butchered on that hill; in fifteen separate charges, not one Union soldier reached the crest. Thirty yards from the Confederate line, the mangled body of a Union officer lay in the snow, his arms clutching the battle standard, and his blood poured out on the frozen ground. One hundred and thirty years later, his death, and the other 300,000 Union dead from the Civil War, would only inconvenience four commodity traders.
Next to the kitchen, five employees stand around making conversation and engaging in idle gossip. Three are sunburned, their faces and arms red and warm to the touch. They spent the previous day at the beach, sunning themselves and looking for summer consorts. The other two complain about having to work the day before; their holiday was no holiday at all. Rather it was another day of food service and hard work for minimum wage and tips.
All five employees are young men. The oldest looks to be in his late-twenties; he is the most tanned and the only one to wear a wedding band. The youngest appears to be straight out of high school, his eyes wide at the stories of his older companions. Their conversation revolves around the beach and girls. None of them care about the soldiers and sailors who died so their afternoons could be filled with incessant prattle rather than worrying about whether or not the secret police were watching them.