Memorial Day

Peace Corps LogoWe know that Memorial Day is about remembering those who died in war, but there is an overlap that casts recognition on living veterans too. In that, the holiday doubles as an echo of Veterans Day, with friends often saying to veterans they know, “Thank you for your service.” At church on the first Memorial Day after our return from Peace Corps, Stormy and I heard the minister ask for “those who have served our country” to stand up and be recognized. Starting to rise, thinking of my time in the Air Force, I had a second thought on “serving our country” and encouraged Stormy to stand with me. Seeing her, the minister rephrased, “served our country for our freedom and for peace.”

Memorial Wall at Peace Corps Headquarters

From facebook.com/fpcvmemorialproject/

Over 300 Peace Corps volunteers have died in service, of the more than 200,000 who have served. Like in the armed services, there have been all kinds of causes for these deaths, from violence and deadly diseases to traffic accidents and just running out of time. There is a memorial at the Peace Corps Headquarters in DC to those who have lost their lives in Peace Corps service, names etched on black stone as if to reflect “The Wall” (The Vietnam Veterans Memorial) located not far away. There are lists and a number of touching remembrances online at the Fallen Peace Corps Volunteers Memorial Project.

I was in London once a few Novembers ago, on 11/11 specifically, when at 11:11 AM the city came to a stop for a moment of silence. It was impressive, though for only a minute as pedestrians, at least a noticeable number of them, stopped where they were and bowed their heads. Public ceremonies on Armistice Day, observed also in the US although morphed into our Veterans Day, were occasions of solemn remembrance for those who lost their lives in war. Initially it was for the Great War, “the war to end all wars.” Now of course we call that one WWI and we had to start numbering them, since as a species we have proven relentless in adding wars to the list. Memorial Day goes back a bit farther, dating to the U.S. Civil War, when relatives would decorate the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers. The distinction between the two holidays, one commemorating the dead and the other about honoring the sacrifices of the living, has become a little blurred. In any event, though, they both seem more respectfully observed than when our soldiers were coming back from Vietnam in the sixties.

A poem comes to mind. It is called “For the Fallen” and it was written in 1917 by Laurence Binyon. The most famous stanza, which I have seen inscribed on plaques and tablets in monuments, churches, and cemeteries all around the world, is this one:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them.

When I first came across those lines, on a brass plaque years ago while visiting the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, it struck me hard, right in my memory muscle and made it ache. The faces of friends and classmates, pilot training buddies, some as close as brothers and some I barely knew, flashed through my mind. Grow not old. Forever young. Forever. The thought took my breath away. They were all young when I knew them, and those images would never change for me or for anyone else who knew them.

I wrote the lines down and kept them in my wallet. I learned some time later (after all knowledge had been scooped and plated by Google) that throughout much of the British Commonwealth, at memorial services, the verse is often recited by a minister or civil officiant and the final line, “We will remember them” is repeated by the audience in response.

The carillon at the Air Force Academy Cemetery has a song in its repertoire based on Binyon’s poem. It was played at the dedication ceremony when the bells were installed a few years ago, and it fits the Memorial Day theme. The words are below, starting with the well-known verse, and if you want to hear it on the bells you can listen here: We Will Remember Them.

We Will Remember Them

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them.

All the fields of strife, they have left behind.
We’re bound to follow them, and until we do,
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them.

As the stars shall be bright when we are dust,
Soaring in echelon above the heav’nly plain,
As the stars that shall shine in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

Bonds of soul and steel, forged in flames of youth
Hold even stronger now, as we fall in line.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them. We will remember them.

Memorial Day. Cookouts, picnics, sales in stores. But yes, in a quiet moment, a thought for those who have died while serving our country “for our freedom and for peace.” We will remember them.

 

6 thoughts on “Memorial Day

  1. Beautiful, Bruce, thanks for posting. May I share this on FB? I know there is the little share button, but I want to ask first.

  2. Pingback: Legacy | Bulgaria Stories

Comment, reply, agree or deny? Love to hear from you!