Harriet Freiberger: Memorial Day traditions
Nothing is more dramatic here in the high country than summer’s awakening. Mountains that guard our greening valley soar into wider blueness. Could there be a more appropriate time for our national holiday of remembrance?
Memorial Day — an American tradition — one of our best. This is a day to look upward into that summer sky, think about what draws us to this place and touch the ground where our soldiers lie buried.
Honoring them, all across the United States, and in lands far away as well, flags of red, white and blue flutter in the wind. Death ended their lifetimes in this world, leaving a marker for each in time and space, but others who shared in harm’s way have been lost, never identified and never having claimed that home for their physical remains. Memorial Day is for them all.
National recognition of their service began 150 years ago, after a war that came close to splitting our country in two, and Union dead filled newly designated national cemeteries. At Arlington, near the Robert E. Lee family’s rose garden, men of blue and gray alike were interred, first of the Unknowns to be memorialized.
Fifty years later the “Great War” ended, and again too many were left unaccounted for. Time had come for grieving families to find solace in what would become an American tradition. Recognition and burial of an unknown soldier would represent the missing.
In November 1921, some 100,000 people visited the Capitol Rotunda to honor the soldier they all wanted to think of as their own and lined the 5-mile route across the river to Arlington National Cemetery. President Warren Harding and General “Black Jack” Pershing walked behind the caisson bearing the Unknown’s casket. In faraway cities, listeners to the new medium that would become known as radio heard President Harding’s “tribute of heart and mind and soul to this fellow American.”
Three decades passed, and two more unknown soldiers joined the first, one from WWII and one from the Korean conflict. As before, thousands viewed the Unknowns’ caskets in the Capitol Rotunda.
At Arlington, President Dwight Eisenhower awarded two Medals of Honor. Parents, husbands, wives, brothers and sisters touched the Tombs of the new Unknowns, holding dear their precious personal memories.
Now, a fourth crypt lies empty, its cover inscribed: “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.” This newest Memorial Day tradition takes the shape of a flag that represented, at first, the captured or listed as missing in action in Vietnam. Now, the emblem speaks to all 82,729 missing American service personnel from WWII onward.
Beneath the letters MIA POW, the starkness of a white circle on black cloth lays bare our sadness: the profile of a gaunt man’s bent head, a watchtower’s guard and a strand of barbed wire. Four words beneath the white circle promise, “You are not forgotten.”
On this Memorial Day, black and white flies beneath the red, white and blue above the White House, the only other flag ever to be flown there.
Here, in our cemetery, we can touch the graves of 296 veterans. Many of their descendants stand among us this morning as we watch the Colors lowered to half mast, and the wreath placed beneath the MIA/POW emblem. The guard changes. Heel-clicks on the brick walk echo in the enveloping silence.
Families, friends and neighbors acknowledge who those soldiers were when they lived. Together, we reach the place on earth that is theirs.
Looking upward into the sky, we speak to all the others. “We are Americans, and, today, you are home with us.”
Note: Missing as of May 16: WWII, 73,159; Korea, 7,818; Vietnam, 1,620; Cold War, 126; Iraq and later, 6.
Harriet Freiberger has lived in the Elk River Valley since 1982. A Memorial Day service will be held at 11 a.m. Monday at the Steamboat Springs Cemetery.
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