Keeping the meaning of Memorial Day alive Veterans' kin recall sacrifices made by those who served

May 26, 1998|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

At the scenic wooded spot where James L. Harris used to play as a child in the 1960s, his mother, Mattie, once again made a pilgrimage yesterday to remember her son who died in Vietnam.

Shot in the head on May 25, 1968, James Harris, was among the honored dead at the Maryland Vietnam Veterans Memorial near the foot of the Hanover Street Bridge in South Baltimore.

For Mattie Harris, the veterans memorial site is more than a place to gather with others who lost family members. On this landscaped, verdant rolling hill that slopes to the Patapsco River, she can remember her little boy who used to come here to play long before anyone in the neighborhood ever heard of Vietnam.

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"It was just woods and fields then," said Harris, who raised a family of eight in Cherry Hill. "The children played out here on the waterfront."

Now, James Harris' former play spot is a long, waist-high granite wall etched with names of soldiers.

A solemn ceremony was held there yesterday under a relentless sun and relentless memories of lives that were sacrificed in the Vietnam conflict.

"We were so happy when they decided to put this here," Harris said of the memorial dedicated in 1989.

Across the Baltimore region, families and friends gathered to pay their respects and celebrate the holiday with picnics, games and parties.

Nine Baltimoreans traveled to Leesburg, Va., to compete against other veterans in the 12th annual National Veterans Golden Age Games.

The games are a multi-event sports and recreational competition for veterans 55 and older. Yesterday, more than 400 veterans competed for bowling and croquet trophies.

"This has been pretty inspirational for these guys," said R. David Edwards, chief of public and community relations for the VA Maryland Health Care System, a sponsor of the event. "There are a lot of guys that are hooking up and haven't seen each other in 40 years."

In Baltimore, families and friend of veterans visited the region's memorials and used the occasion to teach those too young to remember Vietnam about its cost.

Families travel far

More than 400 people watched the "Placing of the Wreaths" ceremony in Flag Plaza at the Maryland State Veterans Cemetery at Garrison Forest.

Drawing families from as far as Pennsylvania and Western Maryland, the ceremony has taken place since 1984, one year after the cemetery was opened.

Rose Hardy-Bean brought her mother and her young grandchildren to the veterans memorial on her way to the cemetery. She wanted to use Memorial Day as a day of learning.

"It's important because young people don't understand the struggle," Hardy-Bean said. "There were a lot of lives lost and I felt that it was very important that I have my grandchildren here. I wanted to make sure that it wasn't just a day off from school."

Not just a 3-day weekend

State Sen. Perry Sfikas, who represents South Baltimore, the keynote speaker at the veterans memorial, said yesterday that too many people view the Memorial Day holiday as just a three-day weekend.

"As years have passed and memories have faded, many Americans aren't even sure why these days are actually celebrated," Sfikas said.

Linda Ninkovich, a graduate of Patterson High School, drove with her family from Pennsylvania to Baltimore to remember friends who died in Vietnam.

Bringing back meaning

She said it was important that she and her family pause from other Memorial Day activities to reflect on the meaning of the day.

"The meaning has been lost and we have to bring it back," Ninkovich said. "If it weren't for these soldiers, where would we be?"

Pub Date: 5/26/98

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