Brookfield Basics

A column about history, culture, policy, and things in between.

Memorial Day - And Remembering

St. Augustine was not just a theologian; the 5th Century Bishop was one of the great philosophers of Western antiquity.  In his epic work The City of God, he wrote of how the human capacity of memory, the power to first recall and then reflect upon things past, was one of the singular capabilities things that set man apart form the beasts.   

The origin of Memorial Day lies in the war torn Confederacy when in May of 1862, a group of Confederate widows spent a day decorating the graves of their fallen husbands.  The tradition took hold and became known throughout the South as Decoration Day.  By the 1880’s this practice evolved into Memorial Day, and ever since, May 30 has been the day established to recognize and remember our Nation’s fallen Veterans.

I take the name of this article from the ancient lines of the Greek Poet Simonides:

“Go tell the Spartans, those that passeth by,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie”.

These lines refer to King Leonidas and his heroic group of three hundred Spartans who blocked the Pass of Thermopylae, protecting their homeland from the advance of Xerxes’ Persian Army. They knew they would die and yet chose to stay.   They did so because they were raised to believe some things were worth more than their lives.

On Memorial Day of 2008 I think of many people. I think first of my father, father-in-law, and two uncles, World War Two Veterans all.  And I think of Brookfield Central Lancer and US Army Sergeant Scott Brown, and remember his young family.

I think of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, who penned their names to a document ending with the words “and to this Declaration we pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor”.  For their audacity in signing, many would dangle at the end of a British rope.  Today, as we watch the pathetic saga of John Edward's trial unfold, we remember an age in which the political leaders of our yet unformed Nation actually believed that.  

I think of the private in the United States Army of the Potomac, writing a letter to his young wife and four sons just a few days before his death at Gettysburg; a missive of such pure and evocative beauty that it transcends our physical experience.  I remember standing in St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, gazing in slack-jawed, stupefied awe at Michelangelo’s Pieta, all but waiting for the life-like marble to rise and speak.  I remember wondering how a man could create such beauty with naught but stone, hammer, and chisel.  But even The Pieta did not have the impact upon me that Gettysburg did.  Standing there on that Pennsylvania ground, soil soaked and consecrated with the blood of 50,000; I remember thinking I would not want to meet the person who could stand there and remain unmoved.  And I remember murmuring to myself the words of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address as I scanned the rolling countryside.   
I think of Sigfried Sassoon, the World War One British Infantry Officer who risked his life, leaving the safety of his trench to find his wounded friend.   Amidst the horrific carnage Sassoon found his bleeding comrade, who with his dying breath looked up at him and murmured, “I knew you would come”.

I think of Winston Churchill, alone and magnificent, defying Hitler as he proclaimed to the imperiled Free World, “We shall never surrender”.


I think of Douglas MacArthur, America’s greatest soldier and a distant relative of Churchill's.  I envision him in his eighties on the plain of West Point where Brookfield East graduate Jon Lehman now marches, jaw still firm and shoulders square as he gave his last public address to the graduating Cadets, proclaiming as the theme of his address: “Duty, Honor, Country”.

I think of the opening scenes of Spielberg’s masterpiece Saving Private Ryan, filmed at the American Cemetery at Normandy.  I hear the rustle of the enormous, overarching American flags lofting in the Channel-fed breezes as they kept their watchful, silent vigil over the fallen.

I think of another cemetery - Arlington National - a place of such reverential beauty that it beggars description. The Cemetery rests upon land that once belonged to the family of Robert E. Lee; it was confiscated by the Federal Government after the Civil War.  I suspect that Lee would approve of how his land is being used.
For all our Veterans, living and dead, and for all who serve now, our gratitude is so inadequate.  Yet it is all we can offer. 
And so - let us remember.

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