by Rev. John Howard Farmer
Not Just Another Holiday
Memorial Day weekend was once justification for an early hot weather seasonal outing for my family. Right after the war we celebrated it at Bosher’s Dam (James River) and alongside a quarry off US 60 south west of Richmond. One had to climb a fence or two and dodge a few cow patties to get to the venue. Yet, it always had patriotic significance; but that was sometimes lost in the rush to escape old south Richmond. Most of our family guys attended in their former military garb; clothes in those days were far more valuable than now. Sleeves bespoke rank, though then civilian.
After we became river folks it was the first annual opportunity for all our family to be at the Rivah together. It was a hot dog and hamburger weekend. Boats got a spring coat and piers were mended. Forgive me, but booze lubricated far too many gatherings.
My guess is that I paid too little attention to the importance of this weekend until after I was wearing Marine green. My Corps superiors had heavy chests. Decorations from this and that skirmish bedecked many a uniform. Saluda’s Gen. Puller was a living icon. Some of the old salts shared World War II and Korea while trying to prepare us for southeast Asia.
My uncle Elmo Wilkinson’s name is on the glass at the World War II monument just north of the James. My dad, uncles and stepfather took up arms in order that I could grow up in a free society. I have a debt of gratitude that must be patriotically expressed this Memorial Day. It is a matter of pride and honor.
Like most holidays, Memorial Day has undergone changes since its establishment just after the Civil War. When first instituted, the day of remembrance for war dead was always May 30. Most communities now observe Memorial Day on the last Monday in May.
By 1871, folks were also calling it Decoration Day, after the custom of decorating the graves of the dead. In a west Tennessee community where I once pastored, it was the custom to scrape all the graves clean, place flowers and flags on the graves, and conduct a worship service in the cemetery.
Americans have a tendency to shift both the dates and names of celebrations. This holiday is an example of that. Another example is Columbus Day, once celebrated on the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ landing in the Bahamas: October 12, 1492. Now it is observed on the second Monday in October. Since at least 1913, Columbus Day has also been called Discovery Day.
Old George has not escaped either. Washington’s Birthday also has been altered. First celebrated as a holiday in the early 19th century, it was originally observed on our first president’s birth date, February 22. (We still claim him as a lad from the Northern Neck, eh?) The holiday was renamed Presidents’ Day so it could also cover Abraham Lincoln. That legal holiday now falls on the third Monday in February.
Years ago my young friend Ashley Lewis, now a lieutenant with Henrico County Police, helped connect generations of patriots by the restoration of the World War I Memorial at Irvington Road and King Carter Drive in the parking lot of the Irvington United Methodist Church. He chose it for his Boy Scouts of America Eagle project.
To all of you who are living veterans, to the memory of those fallen in fields of battle, to the families of those missing in action, I tip my hat to you. I will pause and lift a prayer this holiday, for I have much for which I am thankful. I am still proud to be an American. That right is a gift to me, from those who died to make it so. God bless America.
Do you remember hearing Broadway, radio and early TV star Kate Smith singing Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America?” It became America’s highest single fundraiser during World War II.
“God bless America, land that I love. Stand beside her and guide her through the night with the light from above.
“From the mountains to the prairies to the oceans white with foam.
“God bless America my home sweet home. God bless America, my home sweet home.”
Surely it was from a time more patriotic than now. Treat yourself: Google “Irving Berlin sings ‘God Bless America’,” (May 5, 1968, Ed Sullivan Show), for the temperature of our nation’s patriotic yesteryear. Or you might profit from John Wayne’s “Swing Out Sweet Land” 1970 TV Special, to sample Hollywood’s former demeanor.
Well, when we gather over at the church house next week we’ll give you a chance to sing it again.