Veterans worry that no one will remember war dead


May 30, 1994|By DAN RODRICKS

Historians who study these things disagree about the time and place of the first Memorial Day, though all seem to agree its roots were set in soil still fresh with the blood of the Civil War. The village of Waterloo, N.Y., claims the first Memorial Day -- May 5, 1866. But Boalsburg, Pa., marks a Sunday in October 1864 as the nation's first. There are other towns, sites of Civil War battles, claiming to have held services to honor the dead in 1865, either before or shortly after the war ended.

It has been documented that, before the fighting ceased, women in many southern towns had started placing flowers on the graves of Confederate soldiers. On May 30, 1865, black schoolchildren in Charleston, S.C., placed flowers over four trenches in which Union troops had been buried.

By 1868, Memorial Day (or Decoration Day) was firmly established when the commander of the Grand Army of the Republic decreed that the nation honor its war dead by "decorating graves of comrades who died in defense of their coun- try."

Where it all started doesn't matter as much as whether it will continue. Veterans ask that question every year at this time. You hear it in their voices when they reflect on the day. And it's a reasonable concern in this age of diminishing attention spans and fading memories.

I spoke with Vince Krepps the other day. He desperately wants his identical twin brother, Richard, remembered. He wants the name of his brother and the names of all Americans killed in the Korean War etched on a national memorial. Today on Boston Street, he'll place a wreath at Maryland's Korean War Memorial to honor his brother, whose body was never recovered from the North Korean prisoner-of-war camp in which he is believed to have died.Vince Krepps takes more than a wreath to the ceremony; he takes the long-standing mystery and pain associated with his brother's death. You can hear that in his voice when he speaks of it.

In John Handley's voice the other day, I could hear two things: quiet dignity and a sober resignation about the passing of time. He's a Korean War veteran and quartermaster of an old Veterans of Foreign War post, the Redwood post, named for a lieutenant from Baltimore killed in World War I. Handley has a strong and deeply personal attachment to Memorial Day.

"We used to visit 15 to 17 graves and place flags on graves, and I would attach the buddy poppies to each of the flags," Handley said. "But it's become harder and harder to do." The membership of the post is aging and dwindling, and Handley, whose father was a charter member of Redwood, believes the post soon will be defunct.

"We don't have a post home like other VFWs," he says. "We meet at the War Memorial building. We're down to about 44 members, and I'm the youngest member of the post and I'm 64." He worries that soon no one will be around to remember, that no one will want to bother with flags and poppies.

We hear aging veterans say that every year, and there doesn't seem to be any way to console them. Except to tell them this:

There are really two holidays today -- the one marked by flags and wreaths and ceremony, and the one that takes place in people's hearts. And it's in hearts that Memorial Day endures.

Memorial Day is the most personal of public holidays. It has

transformed into that over the years. Somewhere along the way, between the time it was officially recognized as a day to honor the nation's war dead and the time it became an obscenely commercialized and busy holiday weekend, Memorial Day became a time to honor the memory of all who passed before us, civilian and military, and who gave our lives meaning. It was an important day not only for families who suffered losses in American wars, but for all families. My first memories of this holiday go back to a small New England town and two striking images -- men in uniform weeping at the sound of taps, and men and women in "Sunday clothes" decorating graves of our immigrant ancestors.

In searching for reflections on this holiday, I recalled a poem by another New Englander, Walter Hard of Vermont, and asked a friend to fetch it off his bookshelf. It is titled, "On Memorial Day," and I was surprised to discover that, in it, Hard makes no mention of combat or valor. Instead, it is a starkly personal meditation about a man visiting a graveyard by a brook.And so it was with all the people there

Whose names were carved on the stones:

They were each one a part of the living present.

To the living, who would come to that spot

On this special day of remembrance,

Had come something which lived on

From generation to generation.

Something passed on to be woven into the warp and woof

Of new and ever-changing times.

Things worthy and things unworthy;

Things that helped and things that hindered;

Talents hidden in a napkin of obscurity

Which chance unfolded in another generation.

There he stood in the midst of a world that had been

But which was part of the living present

As it would be of the days yet to come.

Here indeed was life immortal.

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