For many Americans, Memorial Day is the official kick-off of summer, promising the first camping trip of the season or perhaps an outdoor barbecue. It’s a long weekend for many, with Monday declared a national holiday - and a day off of work. Here in North Dakota, a lot of people head for Lake Sakakawea, called simply “The Lake,” to clean out their cabins, bring their campers and boats out of winter storage, and hopefully catch a fish or two. No matter that often the weather is uncooperative and cold. This weekend’s forecast promises significant chances of thunderstorms and high winds, but it’s Memorial Day weekend and even if the weather doesn’t cooperate, it’s the unofficial first weekend of summer.
Memorial Day wasn’t always celebrated on the last Monday in May, nor was it always called Memorial Day. The tradition of decorating the graves of fallen soldiers is a time-honored one. In the United States, various “Decoration Days” were set aside to honor Civil War dead. Some cities held these days of remembrance in early spring, some on the fourth of July, and some on various other dates. During the 20th Century, Decoration Day was expanded to include remembrance of the slain veterans of all U.S. wars. By WWII the name Decoration Day was largely replaced by Memorial Day and the federal government declared Memorial Day, May 30, a national holiday in 1967.
In 1968, Congress signed into the law the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which went into federal effect on January 1, 1971. This act moved the traditional dates of four holidays, including Memorial Day, to a Monday with the intention of giving federal employees more three-day weekends. For many, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), this federal law obliterated popular focus from the importance of the day as a time to honor service men and women who have given the ultimate sacrifice. Instead, the focus shifted to leisure activities at the onset of summer.
On the official VFW website, the meaning of Memorial Day is described in this way: “Memorial Day, May 30 (traditional), is a sacred day to all war veterans. America's collective consciousness demands that all citizens be reminded of the deaths of their fellow countrymen during wartime. By honoring the nation's war dead, we preserve their memory and thus their service and sacrifice. Sacrifice is meaningless without remembrance.”
I think TR would have agreed. A staunch patriot and enthusiastic soldier, he also was a dedicated participant in Decoration Day activities throughout his life. In a Decoration Day speech he gave to the Long Island Farmer’s Club, he said, “I do not even merely ask you to use every energy and every expedient of practical science to increase the food production of the country; I ask you in addition to volunteer for service during the war, both by coming forward into the armed forces of the nation, and by yourselves subscribing to the Liberty Loan.”
Although the speech is undated, research suggests it was given in April of 1917, just days after the United States entered the first world war.
Roosevelt was a highly decorated war hero and had instilled in his children a keen sense of patriotic duty. Five of his six children served in WWI, his four sons in the armed forces and his daughter Ethel as a nurse. Of the five, only four returned; Quentin was shot down over France in July 1918. Both Ted and Archie were wounded.
Although Quentin’s death shattered TR, he did not deviate from his staunch patriotism. In a letter to his daughter-in-law Belle, he wrote. “I would not for all the world have had him fail fearlessly to do his duty, and to tread his allotted path, high of heart; even altho (sic) it led to the gates of death. But it is useless for me to pretend that it is not very bitter to see that good, gallant, tender-hearted boy, leave life at its crest…”
Memorial Day is a day that is set aside specifically to honor America’s war dead. While we enjoy our long weekend, our barbecues and our fishing, perhaps we should take a moment to remember those who have left “life at its crest” in the service of our country.