Monday, May 30, 2016

Memorial Day--More Personal Than You Might Think

In all the years of this blog, I've never posted about Memorial Day, which is rather strange looking back on it. Memorial Day is a holiday that touches most Americans peripherally--first barbecue, first day the pool's open, first day of summer. But I grew up in a military town, in a family with strong military roots. Memorial Day has always meant a little more to me. After all, growing up in Clarksville, TN which is the host city for Ft. Campbell, KY (home of the famed 101st Airborne and the 502nd Special Forces when I was growing up) makes Memorial Day more important.

Soldiers were a part of my everyday life. You can't go anywhere in Clarksville without running into the military--a fact the community has embraced and takes pride in. So, the cemeteries in my hometown are full of military graves--some of those graves hold members of my family. My father is a veteran, as is his. Many of my uncles were career military, officers and gentlemen all. And many of my friends joined, served, and died under the American flag.

But I've never posted a blog about Memorial Day, because it's always seemed just way too personal. 

When I was a young woman living in Clarksville, I remember when the 101st was mobilized to head over to Iraq. Like many citizens in Clarksville, I knew hours before the news broke. I went to Krogers to pick up either baby formula or beer--funny how those two are linked inextricably in my mind. At any rate, I walked into the store with my friend, and I remember stopping dead in my tracks. 

There was one teller line open, and there was a line of men waiting to be checked out that ran all the way to the back of the store and curved around the meat department to the dairy. Those men were patient, juggling baskets with things like gum, cookies, chips, snack mix, stationery, stamps--yes, so long ago people still wrote letters--and every single man was freshly shaved. 

I stopped and looked at my friend and said quietly, "The US is about to declare war." 

She was a fellow student of mine on the debate team at APSU from East Tennessee, and she looked puzzled. "What makes you say that?" 

I pointed at the line and said, "Because these are the guys that get deployed first. They're shipping out tonight."

She thought I was crazy.

Two days later, the entire base at Ft. Campbell was sealed up pretty damn tight, complete with razor wire and barricades at the entrances. And aside from a few token units, it was completely empty.

A week later, Clarksville was literally a ghost town. Thousands of businesses went under, dependent as they were on the military trade. Traffic was suddenly non-important. Thousands of women returned home to their families. And everyone in town was suddenly doing the same thing.


I've traced my family genealogy over the past year or so, and my line of descent includes veterans of every American war--including a Colonel in the Revolution, and a General in the French and Indian War. Military cemeteries in Virginia, Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee have gravestones with my family name on them--men who have served their country and instilled in their descendants a true love of country. My daughters' grandfathers on both sides are military veterans, as is their step-grandfather, my husband's dad, who served in a particularly brutal capacity during the Vietnam War--something he rarely talks about.

And now my son-in-law is also a veteran, a Purple Heart recipient from the war in Afghanistan. My daughter lived with me while he was deployed--a year and a half of worry for him, sorrow that he was missing his daughter growing from infant to toddler, and sacrifice on her part. Now he's home, dealing with the aftereffects of his service, and sometimes I wonder when I look at his beautiful, intelligent six-and-a half-year-old daughter or the rampaging all-boy two-year-old twins if one day I'll worry about them as they carry on the family traditions of service to our country.

But Memorial Day isn't about veterans. It's about those who don't get the chance to become veterans--the heroes of our country. And when I think about those soldiers, the list gets long and sad. 

I remember the young lieutenant who was a regular at the little bar where I hung out in college, and how he ran a black market canteen while he served in Iraq--and how the last supply package I sent him arrived a day too late. 

I remember the always-courteous master sergeant who came to my dad's store every Saturday just to glean knowledge from the farmers who clustered around the desk, and how many of those farmers were in the long line of cars that drove back to Sarge's farm after his internment. 

I remember the long, lanky 18-year-old private whose guts I thought I hated, only to have him killed seven years later after we'd become friends. 

I remember the second lieutenant fresh out to his command who I'd jokingly called cannon fodder--only to find my words had been oddly prescient six months later. 

I remember the tears on the face of a childhood friend as her three-year-old daughter wept into her father's triangular-shaped flag. 

I remember a line of stair-stepped kids from fifteen to two, doing their best to emulate their father's well-known stern demeanor as their grandfather pulled his daughter off a flag-draped coffin. 

I remember a line of coffins in a row, placed with military precision on a brutally cold afternoon, while an honor guard added another to the line. Two weeks before Christmas.

I remember the day Ronald Reagan came to Ft. Campbell to deliver an address at the memorial service for 248 servicemen who died on December 12 of 1985 after an air crash in Gander, Newfoundland. The day was December 16. It was unnaturally, bitterly cold. I was a smartass college freshman, sent to cover the event for the newspaper. I was struck particularly how all thoughts of security for the President dissolved as he lingered with the families of the dead, and how human he seemed as he embraced them all and wept with them.

ALL of them.

Sometimes a President transcends his office. This was one of those moments.


Only if you were there and witnessed how Reagan interacted with the survivors of the soldiers who'd died in that horrible, strange plane crash can you possibly understand why to Clarksville natives, there is a genuine feeling of love and respect for this most sympathetic of Presidents.

Then as now, Presidents were on a tight, tight schedule, and when Reagan saw how many families were there, and how many children, he basically told his staff to go to hell and remained there until the very last mourner had known the touch of his hand, the warmth of his embrace, and the genuine sharing of his grief and his tears.

I am a cynical, liberal analyst of behaviors--as any writer must be. And even to this day, when I remember how much of himself Reagan gave to the survivors of those servicemen lost, I tear up. He won more than my vote that day.

He understood, and respected, what those families had given to their country. Their best.

The Gander Memorial in Ft. Campbell, surrounded by the 248 trees that represent the servicemen lost as they returned from a peacekeeping mission in Sinai, Egypt. Their Air Arrow Flight home crashed in Gander, Newfoundland for reasons that are still a mystery to this day.
Many career soldiers stay in Clarksville after they retire. I think every retired soldier in the community showed up that day to honor the Gander crash victims. It's incredible to remember seeing the old, old men in their veteran regalia saluting as the President entered. World War II. Korea. Vietnam. Even a few World War I vets. They saluted the commander-in-chief, and even those old men who'd needed walkers or assistance to get there stood straight and proud as they saluted, and while their faces might have been wet their backs were unbowed and their legs didn't tremble. Their brothers who couldn't stand up saluted too, and they were a somber counterpart, a reminder to us all of the aftermath of war. There's a certain posture military men get, a crisp snap to attention that never fades, regardless of age. That day was the first day I encountered the permanence military training instills--a reflex that persists no matter how the strength fades. Even men of 80 suddenly stand like they're 20 when an officer walks by. That day, the posture was heralded by tears. It was a particular kind of pride and grief that impacted me so much that echoes of it resonate in my writing now. 

Even to this day, I drive past the Gander Memorial every time I go home. The memorial is a lovely place, the 248-sugar maple tree grove that was begun when a Canadian girl upon hearing of the crash decided to donate her babysitting money to plant a tree for each soldier lost. That memorial is a vital heart in my childhood community--originated by the generosity of a girl who cried when she learned those men weren't making it home for Christmas after all.

I remember the first time I saw Arlington Cemetery, with its plain white stones marking tens of thousands of Americans dead in all our wars--especially the Civil War stones placed right up against the gracious house that seemed so out of place, until I learned that the land had once been General Robert E. Lee's, and regardless of who won the Civil War the North was making certain he would never be able to return to his home. 

And I remember going to my mom's grave in the first week of June, and upon seeing the hundreds of small flags coursing through the rows of the cemetery that emphasized Clarksville's connection with the American military, I felt a surge of pride. And while my mother wasn't a soldier, I remember thinking that since she'd been a child in Nazi-occupied France and had witnessed the execution of her father, perhaps she just might deserve a little flag too.

Every American family tree has branches upon it that are cut out, short, burned from the family trunk with fire and blood and death. Mine is not abnormally laden with those tragic broken limbs. But the roots of every American family bear those little American flags. Sometimes the number of stars is different. Sometimes, those flags change to a Confederate flag for a few years, but once those roots reach the tree they are all, at their core, American. 

That's what Memorial Day is about. Not the broken limbs, but the roots. And as we all know, without the roots any tree will wither.