The classic Memorial Day vignette, one that's usually portrayed in all its heart-tugging splendor, is that of an old man standing on a street corner in late May, holding the hand of a young child, probably his grandson, as a parade pounds past. The little boy looks up at granddad and asks, with that quizzical gleam in his eye: ''Grampa, what is Memorial Day?'' And of course the elderly gentleman begins the standard explanation about all those in this country's history who made the ''ultimate sacrifice'' for the rights, freedoms and way of life we all enjoy in America. However, at the risk of just a touch of heresy, I'd like to express a little different point of view. Don't get me wrong on this point. I do not have a problem with the basic tale as told above. And, yes, I do agree we all owe a great deal to those who have perished fighting this nation's wars. But I'd like to put just a little special spin on the standard sermon that usually accompanies all the picnics, parades and quiet visits to cemeteries on this particular holiday, which for far too many of us is just another excuse for a day off.

It's a misconception that the price these individuals paid for this country's way of life was anything like the commercial transaction we tell ourselves and our young. I am certain that none of those dead were ever offered anything remotely resembling such an exchange. Because, if such were the case, I have no doubt, having been personally acquainted with several, that those dead would certainly have chosen life. Which brings me to the crux of my point. I believe, with all of my heart, that no one who ever died in battle for this country or any other took that long, cold step into eternity in trade for nation, political and/or military leadership, apple pie or any other neatly packaged patriotic ideal.

I doubt if the last thoughts, words and visions of those staring over the precipice strayed toward bits of colored cloth, tattered old documents, self-evident truths and the preservation of liberty per se. However, the pursuit of happiness might well be quite a different matter. And I am very sure that the concept of ''life'' -- their own, those of buddies and distant loved ones -- was a central theme. I have heard individuals who had every reason to believe they were standing at that dark threshold wax eloquent about everything from sweethearts to 1957 Chevys. They have wanted to sing, cry, discuss cold beer, hot women, cheeseburgers and the smell of corn in the field.

But none in my presence ever took a moment for discourse on the Constitution, its Bill of Rights or the Declaration of Independence. And, to be historically correct, none, save those who lost their lives fighting for our original extrication from the British Empire in the last quarter of the 18th century or against the same enemy in 1812-14, could be said to have actually fought for the survival of our way of life. The closest any ever came after the War for Independence was the Civil War. But even then, we were never really fighting for our national life, only to keep others of a different persuasion in the fold.

Man does not fight and die for abstract or actual political ideas. Rather, he is laid to rest wrapped within them by those of us who survive. It is the way we, the living, have of coping with those deaths. It is we who ascribe the meaning. And that is not to say that a single one of those individuals we will recall both individually or collectively on this and successive celebrations of Memorial Day was or is a coward. There are no such things buried in this or any other nation's hallowed ground.

That's right -- I am willing to stand by the statement that each and every one of those dead, from Lexington Green and Bunker Hill to the deserts of Kuwait and mountains of Bosnia, were and most assuredly are nothing less than star-spangled heroes of the highest order. Believe me, this particular fraternity has a cheat-proof entrance exam. All those who do not or cannot measure up to its severe requirements are not admitted.

And I will take it one step further. Adding my own addendum to the age-old adage about there being no atheists in foxholes, I will venture the assertion that there are no cowards there as well. Oh, there are lots of scared individuals in those holes in the ground, tanks, airplanes, hanging from parachutes and hiding behind trees. But it takes a lot more than fear to make a coward, the manifestation of which I can honestly say I never met in those dire straits. And if being afraid is to be the only criterion used in its measure, then there are no heroes, only cowards. So the remembrances should be filtered through the clear glass of respect and honor.

But it should also reflect the idea that each and every one was once a real, breathing flesh-and blood individual, deserving of every honor we can afford.

But if there is just one reason for all their particular sacrifices, it is not the perpetuation of this nation or any other. It was and is, instead, that their sacrifices would be the last. That there would come a day when someone's grandson would ask that Memorial Day question and grandpa will not remember. Ironically, that is the day those dead have purchased a front row ticket for with their lives. A time when that brand of death is not only rare, but unheard of. When the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and any other of the organizations constituted for such a purpose disappear because there are none left qualified for membership.

Meanwhile, we will always remember until that day comes when we as a species have advanced to the stage we need not recall such names and deeds, save in dust-covered volumes.

Unfortunately, it will not be my grandson whose question will go unanswered. But I can always hope and pray that his grandson's will.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online May 24, 2000

Back to The Zephyr