For years Memorial Day has been a work day for me. The unofficial beginning of the summer season; as well as the official beginning of the grilling season. Not always the busiest day for restaurant work, but always one we prepare for to welcome the community in to begin a season of celebration, vacation, dining with friends.
This year I spent the day serving the Central Texas specialty of breakfast tacos to the neighborhood prior to the marching of the city parade. The afternoon is for block parties and cookouts. Additionally I sure am glad now that when I am lighting the charcoal starter for the grill, the neighbors will stop looking at me as if I am out of place (I barbecue with snow on the ground).
But Memorial Day has a deep purpose beyond launching Americans into a three-month period of travel, hamburgers and long weekends. A number of years ago this purpose was forever etched in my awareness.
Somewhere around the 66th training day (of which there are 70) on Parris Island we hosted a visitor. Parris Island, of course, is the basic training site for the majority of United States Marines. About half of the male recruits and all of the females are trained here. Parris Island is a place designed to recreate the stress of war, for a period of months (3) in an environment of relative safety. There are plenty of hours of video dedicated to capturing this unique experience. They are all fairly accurate. Relative is an important distinction here.
This is not an account of life on Parris Island. YouTube can give you that. Alternatively any recently minted Marine will be happy to extol their exploits aboard United States Recruit Depot Parris Island if asked to. Ask early though as once they've been around the world a time or two they won't be too interested in reminiscing about those good old days anymore, unless they know you've been there too.
This is about the man visiting us soon to be graduates of what is arguably the toughest initial training program of any military organization, anywhere. Just over one hundred (down from the about 150 who began) members of the 1st Recruit Training Battalion, Delta company, sit cross-legged on the deck, hands on knees, eyes straight ahead. We have just finished a 54-hour training exercise dubbed "The Crucible," a graduation requirement on Parris Island that tests limits and pares away the last few individuals not cut out to finish training with this group.
Those of us who remain are all but Marines now, a few days away from seeing families, using a phone, enjoying a morning coffee, all for the the first time in months. Despite this nearly in our grasp accomplishment, just sitting in this posture today is an impossible task for these assembled; blistered, sun and sand burnt, insect bitten, sleep deprived and delirious warriors.
Then he walks in. A few years shy of sixty, wearing the uniform of the day (utility), but the way it looked the last time he was required to don it; during the Vietnam War. With all the trappings of an enlisted man, a Corporal, in the United States Marine Corps of the late 1960's.
Remembering this now I am ashamed that just half a decade after hanging up my uniforms, I know damn well I would have a hard (impossible) time slipping them on in any sort of a hurry, but there he was, about 40 years later in his case, wearing his as if he were still a teenager in his fighting prime.
For the first time we are addressed as Marines by this stranger. A roaring chorus, the sound of which will only be familiar to those who have heard it first hand, responds back to our honored guest. The anachronistically polite morning greeting from this group of young iPod era men to their fellow Marine pairs hilariously with the perfectly synchronized shout that delivers it.
Also for the first time in weeks we are spoken to, not screamed at; and without the baring of teeth. Each of us could easily under different circumstances close our eyes and sleep soundly for the better part of a day. Instead, yearning deeply for real human interaction, the virtual fog of war so recently lifted, we are rapt at attention. The topic of discussion is primarily motivational. A little joking and commiserating about life aboard this island. Training was a bit different then, in the days during the height of the activity in Vietnam. Boot camp was abbreviated in a race to get troops on the ground, but plenty remained the same. We all have a good laugh with our new friend. He told us to be proud of what we had accomplished so far, but to be ready for even tougher tests ahead.
Then he begins to relate something that I will never forget. He explains that now, all these years later. After his war, his service. After the death of his wife, his children moving away and beginning new lives. After the passing away, or simply losing regular contact with the majority of his early life friends. Even now, without fail, there are two days each year that the phone rings morning til night. One is in May, Memorial Day and one, Veteran's Day, in November. The phone calls come from friends and relatives, co-workers and casual acquaintances, even children of past lovers. He pauses a while, then begins to cry.
His tears are specific to Memorial Day. Those calls are all "thank yous." "Thank you for your service." "Thank you for what you sacrificed." A few add, "We'll never forget what you went through." Our new friend appreciates these calls greatly. The problem is that he fears that the sacrifice of some others may indeed have been forgotten by those on the other end of that phone. As much as he enjoys this thankful group, and is proud of his service to his country, Memorial Day is intended to remember those who aren't here to be thanked any longer. Memorial Day honors those who have died in service to their country. Those who gave their lives as a direct result of their fight for our nation.
Over the course of a few years his story has proven prophetic in my own life. Twice a year I field much appreciated comments related to my service. I look forward to them. I've moved on with my life but am happy to be not forgotten. I wouldn't trade those remembrances for anything.
Except maybe one thing. If you really want to thank the service member in your family over Memorial Day; do so by being sure to remember those who aren't here to celebrate with us now. Remember them by reaching out to the families they've left behind. If you don't know one, consider learning about one. Like this teacher did with his elementary school class. We can no longer stand with those who have fallen, but we can stand by their loved ones and let them know we remember; and give them thanks.
Those of us still here will look forward to your well wishes on our day, Veteran's Day, November 11th. This Memorial Day season let's be sure that first in our in our thoughts are those who are no longer.