A Memorial Day reverie

field-notes

EDITOR’S NOTE: This column was originally published in the June 1, 2006, edition of The Canadian Record. This seemed an appropriate time to reprise it, as we all prepare for a busy three-day weekend of graduation ceremonies and family gatherings and cookouts and free swimming at the municipal pool. The graphic above is a two-page feature The Record published on June 1, 2010, with images of that year’s Memorial Day observance at Canadian’s Edith Ford Memorial Cemetery, during which the late Ray Risley, the last surviving charter member of VFW Post 7469, was honored. An Army veteran of World War Il, Risley was severely wounded in the battIe for Okinawa. This community’s observance of Memorial Day, which is this Monday, May 28,  begins at approximately 10:40 am, with a prerecorded reading of the names of all deceased veterans buried in Hemphill County, from Civil War to the current Middle East campaigns. You are all invited. — LEB

FOR THE FIRST TIME in many years, I did not attend Memorial Day services at the local cemetery. I did not stand by silently as—one by one—the names of our servicemen and women were read, waiting to hear my father’s name spoken aloud in this honored company. I did not watch the flag snap in the breeze. I did not listen as a trumpet played Taps, as its poignant message pierced my complacency. I was not there.

Instead, I traveled, escaping briefly the routine to which I’ve surrendered. As I drove nearly the length of Texas, I thought and listened and watched, willing myself into silence, ready to absorb the day in whatever form it was revealed.

The radio was my only companion, and served its purpose remarkably well. While still in the relative proximity of the capitol city, I tuned in to Willie Nelson and Guy Clark and John Prine and Bonnie Raitt—long-time favorites whose words comfort and confound and amuse me, their familiar voices filling the car like old friends.

Further afield, I spun the dial like a roulette wheel, hoping to get lucky. I landed instead on channels with more than a tolerable number of preachers and salesmen, whose transactions tended—in their fervor and frenzy—to be indiscernible from each other.

National Public Radio (NPR) saved me—not perhaps the kind of salvation those radio preachers intended, but salvation no less. They were airing a two-hour program of interviews with soldiers from World War II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Old soldiers, who had survived.

They told stories of war’s brutality that were horrifying, their memories still clear despite time’s passage, their voices cracked with age and anger and sorrow. They told stories of loyalty and bravery, of human triumph over brutality and death.

I could not turn the dial. I felt compelled to listen, to stand witness, to honor their words and their lives. I thought of my father, hearing his voice in theirs, hearing his story in those that other men and women told.

Two things struck me most forcefully. First, that the men and women “whose lives and limbs we wager…to advance our cause,” as the author Thomas Lynch described them, are so young. In every war, it is the young and the very young whose eyes are opened, whose blood is spilled, whose innocence is the tragic victim.

I was only seventeen or eighteen, I heard one after another say, and there I was, killing another seventeen-year-old.

I thought of the young men and women of Canadian who had, just three days earlier, celebrated their commencement from high school. I tried to imagine them, armed with the weapons of youth and idealism, propelled into battle by their elders—elders who proclaim war’s necessity, but who too often neither know, nor feel the need to know, its harsh reality or grim truth.

The other thing that struck me—again, in interview after interview—was the common message of these soldiers. They described acts of heroism and sacrifice, the magnitude of which we cannot even know if we are capable until the moment has already passed. Almost to a person, these soldiers denied that theirs were acts of bravery. Instead, they said, they were driven by loyalty and friendship.

“I could not even think of running,” said one, who had just described his company’s advance into the face of near-certain death. “If I ran, it would be my buddy who took the bullet.”

I know little of war—only what I can know from the stories of soldiers. I know this, though…that if we are willing to wage war, we must also be willing to witness its cost, to contemplate its terrible consequences, to face without flinching the sacrifice we have asked of others, and to hold ourselves responsible and accountable for each of these.

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