I get annoyed with articles and reports that assume we’re stupid.
As if flashing “Sale!” signs and the smell of sunscreen somehow make us forgetful. They don’t.
We know that today is Memorial Day, the day we set aside to honor those who fell while serving our country.
It is a solemn idea that, because of its timing, we’ve combined with a seasonal celebration. Tacky commerce aside, there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, the notion of remembrance and celebration, death and life, are already wrapped up in one package on Memorial Day – the U.S. flag.
Every day I read the morning papers. During the week, I do this at the kitchen counter. However, on the weekends I get a treat. I sit outside on my second-story porch to peruse the news and drink coffee, looking over the small park across the street and the water beyond. Two flagpoles stand in the park, one for the Stars and Stripes, the other for the state flag of Texas.
Today, both flags are at half-staff (not half-mast; that term applies to flags on boats)… but only until noon.
Flying flags at half-staff or half-mast to honor the dead goes back centuries. Some claim it allows the invisible flag of death to be at the top. Others think it might go back to ancient Greek and Roman times when staffs were broken in half to signal a significant death. Whatever the origin, it’s a custom we follow.
We honor significant individuals by station. Presidents, Vice Presidents, Supreme Court Justices, etc., are honored upon their death by flags at half-staff but for varying lengths of time. And then there are days every year that we fly the flags low, such as Peace Officers Memorial Day, 9/11, and National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day.
But Memorial Day is different. According to flag code, we fly the Stars and Stripes at half-staff until noon and then raise it to the finial at the top of the pole for the remainder of the day. Exactly why is a bit of a mystery, but we get a clue from the original 1923 version of the flag code:
“On Memorial Day, May 30, the Flag is displayed at half-staff from sunrise until noon and at full staff from noon until sunset; for the Nation lives and the Flag is the symbol of a living nation.”
Anyone with a sense of history could take this sentence and spin it into a book.
Memorial Day grew out of honoring the dead of the Civil War. We honor those on both sides, as President Grant did when he presided over a memorial service at Arlington Cemetery where flowers were strewn across the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers. Not lost in ceremony is the fact that our nation survived.
That survival, and our subsequent growth, is a cause for joyful celebration. The cost exacted from us in our lost husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers cannot be recovered. But it was for a purpose: the life of the nation.
We get to drive where we want, eat what we want, buy what we want, and spend time with whomever we want.
I don’t think a single soldier gave his life so that I could save 50% on a mattress or get $3,000 off the price of a car during the last weekend in May. And no one put his life in jeopardy so that I could join millions of other Americans on the highway as the summer gets into full swing. They died defending my right to choose. For that I am grateful, as I believe we all are.
I will take a moment today, before noon, to consider that flag at half-staff in the little park across the street, and all the sacrifice that it represents. And then, as the afternoon wears on, I think I’ll celebrate the start of summer at my sister’s house with some barbeque and time in the pool.
Here’s to remembering our history and to a solemn, then joyful, Memorial Day.
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