Monday, May 25, 2009


Memorial Day used to be less personal for me. Often, it was an opportunity to make the trek over the high mountain passes from Denver to the Western Slope and visit family in late May and early June when the peaks are still snow-covered and marmots (woodchucks to Mainers) are just starting to creep out of their burrows, rub their eyes, and yawn, muttering one to another, "You snored all winter."

But Viet Nam altered the holiday's innocence, and once you start down a road you may not be able to turn back quite so easily. It's that way with a lot of things but, thankfully, though difficult -- damn difficult -- it doesn't have to be impossible. My cousin's husband was a helicopter pilot who was killed in the boundary-less jungle somewhere between South Viet Nam and Laos. He's buried at Ft. Logan National Cemetery in Denver and I found his name on the traveling Viet Nam memorial last year.

I was in my early teens at the time and had only met him once but the reality of his death and its impact on my family became more acute when it was my turn to register for the draft. My friends and I watched the drawing that year with held breath. I thought I had a fairly high number, but my margin of safety vanished quickly. Finally, like a roulette wheel ticking down, the ball dropped into place three spaces beneath me.

Uncle Sam apparently decided this nephew needed an education rather than military service, and I was given a deferment to finish high school and attend college. Over the years, however, because my father was a Disabled American Veteran (it was an injury rather than a wound incurred in the final days of WW-II), I spent quite a bit of time on one base or another, learning the ins and outs of Veteran's healthcare.

Memorial day came home to me in 2001 and I'm not talking about 9/11. My father passed away the previous late autumn and like my cousin's husband and now, my dear friend and coauthor, Dr. Lynn Smith, he was buried at Ft. Logan. They say a man never truly becomes a man until his father dies. I believe that's true. Until then, if he's fortunate enough to have a father who loves him, dad is always there. We make decisions on our own, we're responsible, we may even raise a family, but there's a change that occurs when a father dies and it's not until then that we finally begin to grow up. It's universal in my experience; I've never had a man who has gone through the loss of his father disagree with me.

So, there I was, on a cold day in November, with my father's flag-draped coffin immediately in front of me, while an honor guard showed him honor in slow motion. I'll never forget the moment one of them placed the carefully folded flag in my hands and saluted. I met his gaze and nodded. Seven rifles fired three times and a buglar sounded Taps. I looked over my shoulder at the rifles stacked as though at bivouac and realized I'd brought my father to rest among those with whom he'd served. Since then, I've never been able to hear Taps or see a military funeral, even depicted on television, without tears.

Memorial Day isn't a holiday for picnics, games, and visiting family -- not for me at least, not anymore. Wherever I am, whatever I'm doing, on this Day I'm really standing among thousands of white marble gravestones, the mountains to the west, with wind blowing over the grass.

And Taps is being played somewhere in the distance.

(Creative Commons image of Ft. Logan National Cemetery via Wikipedia)
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