I don’t remember Memorial Day as a kid. Whether this is because school was already out when it rolled around, or, as in another Texan friend’s experience, it was considered a Yankee holiday and unobserved by the morally upright school district, I don’t know. The best memory I have is some old person grousing in the letters to the editor about how the holiday isn’t about barbeque and football. I see the same complaint now, buried deep in the newspaper websites–perhaps the only mass-media complaint one has to search for.
The past few Memorial Days I have made an effort to find an observance and attend. I know few people who have been in the military, and know only outlines about my father’s time in the Vietnam-era Navy. I do not believe the military does much good, by any measure for anyone, but my disdain and revulsion has softened into something else. Resignation, maybe, or whatever one would call separation of the human narrative from the machine that consumes it.
As a kid I hated the military, like a Sixties radical opposing it or Seventies casualty of it. Reagan with his secret wars in Central America, goading the Russians, and the dazzling idiocy of Star Wars only proved Eisenhower was right, just as even Eisenhower was not strong enough to stop it. I remember bumper stickers of moms wishing the military was left to bake sales to fund new bombers, and this was in Eighties Texas. Billions of dollars since I was born ended up building miles and miles of airplanes, even in high school being parked in the desert to crumble in the sun. The military wasn’t freeing anybody. It seemed to always be where the oil was.
W now nearly four years behind us, we are out of one tragic invasion and, we are told, on schedule to leave another. Whether the wars are ending because the people who really run things have gotten what they wanted, or grown tired of the bad publicity, seems less likely than the costs can no longer be absorbed. At least, that is how the people who really run things see such things.
I am no longer strident against the soldiers. In all the schmaltzy tributes to them it is the unsaid things that have changed me. Sacrifice is said but it means something else: the wholesale evisceration of the countryside, of the future, of rendering all other avenues moot. By and large, soldiers are the poor and near-poor, the ones that can’t afford college or can’t find jobs. That the promises of college money and job training are mostly hollow aren’t heard about much now, because these facts are irrelevant. Joining the military provides now.
They were sent into a war without a plan, without materials they needed to accomplish vague missions: this time it was body armor, but in Vietnam it was cheap rifles that jammed, in wars before something else. No one anticipated the best medical treatment would save lives but leave thousands and thousands of cases of scrambled brains and relentless nightmares.
In having encountered the mundane misfortunes of adult life, I am unenamored of absolutes. The waste and idiocy that outraged a younger me now leave me with a sense of resignation, and the knowledge I cannot identify too deeply, because that pit of loss is bottomless.
Maybe a hundred people gather in the cold grey morning, maybe fifty. A well-dressed man hands out sharply-printed full-color programs, the primary contents being lists of names. The local media mill around as I once did with a professional camera on my shoulder, looking disinterested in the way one must look when seeking out images.
Drizzle driven by wind blows across the small stone space as a man introduces himself and the youth orchestra plays something plaintive and too long. Everyone stands still as the man gives very brief remarks to preface the reading the lists of names while another man, his hands startling in white gloves, tolls a brass bell.
The names are recent, though there is one from World War II. The names have been added to the stone panels lining the well-tended downtown garden. A man named Benaroya built it, on the western side of his elegant symphony hall. He is dead now too, his moneyed name on many civic things.
People are still. Traffic rumbles by behind us, unfazed. I see the blond woman wipe at her eyes. Cold wind puffs, distorting the sound of the bell.
The names read, the wreaths are moved before the stone plinths. The woman in black has been standing next to me and steps with quiet purpose into the open space when the man officiating announces the act. The man in grey is the facilities guy for Benaroya Hall. The honor guard is from Seattle’s fire department. There are no dignitaries.
The wreaths placed, the man says a few things and the youth orchestra plays again. A kid that played in the opening wanders around with a giant instrument case, some minor authority quietly scolding him to get out of the way. I imagine the piece is meant to be significant, to hint at unknowable states of mystery and the totality of loss–lost possibility, lost time, lost innocence–but it comes off as self-important. The music ends. The colors are withdrawn. The man thanks us.
People break up. The woman in black next to me is relieved, talking with her husband; the entire mass of people unstiffens and resumes being alive. A subset moves toward the stone names. Starbucks has provided free coffee and donuts. This kid gets one as the older standing couple ask the sitting man do you have someone up there and explain their lost son. Yes, they say, oh, yes, and then some particulars: when, where, what branch of service. It seemed recent, in the last decade. I thought they seemed too old to be a young man’s parents.
This girl, prominent through the proceeding, breaks down at the end. Two other women have been with her, talking quietly, the three of them sometimes making strained jokes, but this is really the end, and the end is where the truth is. The cameras can’t get anything telegenic. I am sure the cable news channels have scenes like this beaming in from everywhere, none to be used. Advertisers don’t like this kind of buzzkill.
Here the knot of them, joined by loss, shield each other against the void of the city street. People have gone; firetrucks have rolled away. Distracted or puzzled looking people walk through; women with strollers navigate everyone dressed in dark clothes. The real business of the day is starting: the claiming of holiday-free parking, walking a few blocks to hip city shopping. Big sales today, if I remember.
I don’t know anyone in the military now, and have only tenuous experience with those who served in the past: my dad, two people in high school. The two from high school were sent to Iraq the first time around, but suffered no injuries, no trauma, and have lived normally for the past twenty years. The business of projecting and enduring force is now assigned to a subclass I never cross paths with. I see many that claim to be them with cardboard signs, asking for change.
The crowd, such as it was, dissipates with the sun. The small marking of the day has taken place. Whether I honored or did something noble, I don’t know. It is something far away from me, all but irrelevant in direct experience, troubling only for moral and financial implications. All that is ephemera compared to the men humping packs through the freezing or burning desert, ducking behind rocks, shooting at ghosts. Why they are there and what they are to achieve has no relevance to them, then, in the noise. Their only goal is to come back. Some don’t. That is why these walls are to be gone to.