Memorial Day memories came flooding back to me as they haven’t in a long time. Perhaps it’s an age thing — the realization that remembrances of things past as Proust might say may not be long in my future.
But that’s a maudlin thought I won’t dwell on or bore you with.
The recollections I have of this day in my Indiana town are punctuated with my mother and grandmother trekking to several cemeteries to decorate graves with the gorgeous peonies cut fresh from the special bushes in our yard.
At the courthouse in the center of town, the lawn always displayed crosses for those local men and women who gave the “last full measure of their devotion” in not only the Civil War but every conflagration that had taken place until then, mainly World War I, since World War II was still very much an ongoing thing.
For us, it was when summer really began. The community swimming pool opened, lawn mowers were sharpened for those of us who padded our meager bank accounts by hiring out to earn money for a variety of out-of-school activities, camp and ball games.
It was a day where only 27 miles away, men annually risked their lives for the fame and fortune of winning the world’s greatest auto race in front of crowds estimated at 300,000. Most of us never went, but we knew all the Indy drivers and their records, and we argued incessantly about who was the best.
Those are one set of memories. But there are many others that better signify what this day — which has moved backward from its original date — truly is intended to be. That, of course, is a national celebration to honor the lives given to preserve our own.
I remember a razor thin Jimmy Fleets returning from the horrors of the Bataan Death March — 60 miles of hell — ordering milk shakes two and three at a time at the soda fountain in Worland’s Drug Store in a desperate effort to quench the thirst imposed on him and thousands like him by the Japanese Imperial Army.
I remember Nick Chintis, one of those Indiana kids gifted in basketball. He, too, survived Bataan as did a teammate who became one of the heroes forced to carry out triage on those who would get to eat the meager rations in the prison camp.
I remember Oklahoman Jim Lucas who as a Marine combat correspondent winning a Bronze Star wrote from a battle-scarred beach the electrifying words “five minutes ago we took Tarawa.”
It was an announcement that not only gave hope to this beleaguered nation but served notice that perhaps Adm. Yamamoto’s predictions about Pearl Harbor waking a sleeping giant and
filling it with a terrible resolve was about to become a reality for that giant’s enemy.
Jim went on to become a Pulitzer Prize winner in Korea and one of the most highly decorated of his courageous breed. He said to me almost pensively and to himself as I drove him to the hospital for his last battle, “Why couldn’t I have caught one of those bullets I spent a lifetime dodging?” I had no answer.
I remember standing one misty morning in the crater of an extinct Hawaii volcano famously called the Punch Bowl, a national cemetery, totally unprepared for what was in front of me — hundreds of genuine American heroes now grizzled and bearing the scars of their experience there to see me lay a wreath on the grave of the legendary correspondent Ernest Taylor Pyle, killed by a sniper while bringing their stories to millions of Americans. Military bands played, admirals spoke solemnly, and I cried as I tried to eulogize someone killed 40 years earlier.
Ten years later I watched a tall Texan, still straight and imposing, who had led a mule bearing his popular captain’s body down an Italian mountain as described by Pyle in one of the most famous and powerful short treatises on war and death ever written, do the same thing. He had come to honor Pyle in the correspondent’s hometown.
A similar crowd greeted him, and he too wept overcome with emotion. I finally didn’t feel as small although he had far more reason to cry than I.
Those are a few of the more important things I remember about Memorial Day.
Dan K. Thomasson, a Hoosier native and Franklin College trustee, is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.