COMMENTARY: The sacred parade on Memorial Day

I first trod upon the sacred ground of Memorial Day while riding a skittish horse through the cheering throngs of the Memorial Day parade in Fairfield.
My father, dressed in a feathered headband and ill-fitting Native American garb, led my steed by the reins. He was Big Bald Eagle of the Fairfield YMCA Indian Guides tribe. And he was a mess.
His eyes were swollen and beet-red as he stumbled up the Post Road. My 10-year-old mind naturally assumed he was overcome with pride upon seeing me at the head of our tribe, we faux Native Americans reclaiming our lost lands of yore.
Turns out it was hay fever, a condition he’d never shared with me in the discussions leading up to our participation in the parade. He may as well have been wearing a pox-infested blanket as he sneezed incessantly into his handkerchief with one hand while clinging to my horse with the other.

Appreciation for the holiday

This was a man with an appreciation for the holiday. Having served on a naval destroyer himself, he was no stranger to memorial services.
Between wheezes, he gently explained to me that Memorial Day was different than Veterans Day, which celebrates all who’ve served in the military. Memorial Day, on the other hand, honors those who’ve died in service of our country. It’s easy to overlook this while marching in a parade between dancing clowns and a guy on stilts.
As an adult, I’m guilty of getting caught up in a different type of parade. I find myself looking at Memorial Day as the kickoff to summer, a day off work. It’s a three-day weekend to visit friends or watch the Indianapolis 500.
I spend more time shopping for picnic supplies than stopping to thank those who made my lifestyle possible. After all, it’s hard to pick a more beautiful time of year in New England than the last Monday in May.

A moratorium on pontification

However, the parade of distractions shouldn’t overshadow the intent of the day. For instance, I’ve always loved Memorial Day speeches. For the most part, they are devoid of the usual political rhetoric and partisan pandering that seem to be the norm these days.
Fewer politicians dare to wrap themselves in the flag in a quest for sound bites on the six o’clock news, and that’s instantly refreshing.
It’s fitting that there be a moratorium on pontification on Memorial Day weekend. The sacrifices of our armed forces were not made to further political ambition or to determine how we should apply our liberty; their sacrifices were made so that liberty might exist in the first place.

Drastic shift

Many who fought never volunteered to serve but were pressed into duty, employing a completely different kind of courage to adapt to such a drastic shift from civilian life.
Others were lulled into a false sense of security in the post-Vietnam era, joining the Reserves to help pay for a college only to find themselves thrust into the post-9/11 wars in the Middle East.
They were Republican and Democrat and Jew and Christian and Muslim and rich and poor; they were all genders, all races, all ages, and all deserving of our undivided attention on this important day.
Perhaps that’s why Congress actually passed a law in 2000 requiring all Americans to pause at 3 p.m. local time to remember the fallen. That’s right, a law — I’ve broken it almost every year since it was enacted.
It’s fine to enjoy the parade, but don’t let it pass us by without honoring the sacred ground upon which it travels. Take a moment to thank those who marched to their own deaths so we could.
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