May 26 is Memorial Day. Jennifer and I were married on Memorial Day in 2010, which happened to fall on May 31, in honor of our fathers, who both fought in Vietnam and walked point for their squads. As well, Jennifer’s brother Cecil Pruiett of Corydon served in Afghanistan.
My father’s war has served as inspiration and material for much of my writing, directly and indirectly. When I was young, he shot with my uncle Ted for the Allerton American Legion during firing ceremonies. At Richardson Chapel, the men fired directly over Medicine Creek, over Dick Cobb’s cattle, over the house where I grew up. My cousin Matt and I scooped up the spent M1 shells to clink in our pockets after the men finished. Some of the Legion members collected the shells and handed them directly to us. We were going to get Garand rounds whether we wanted them or not.
Sunburst honey locust trees turn yellow around Memorial Day. It’s a sign of the season. During our wedding, red bud trees bloomed all around the lake at Red Haw State Park east of Chariton. In the stone shelter, I read a poem for my wife for the ceremony, where I used the word ‘breast,’ and my stepdaughter Haley claims my mother-in-law, at that point, gasped.
This time of year has always seemed like a gateway. It came after school and graduation when I was young, before summer could take hold and saturate us with a humidity that did not always bring rain. We often visited those who had passed—my grandparents in Clio, my great-grandparents—Doc Ingraham and Minnie of Sewal—at Shriver Cemetery, where my dad also shot his M1 Garand.
Everything is changing. Nothing remains static. Memorial Day is a symbol for the consistency of impermanence. Halloween is supposed to be when the dead visit us; on Memorial Day, it is us who visit the dead. One commemoration is for harvest and the other for sowing, and both hail the coming of the harshest seasons of the year. On the farm, the sole purpose of summer is to prepare for winter.
Halloween for my dad represented just what the American version of the holiday has evolved to represent—horror. It reminded him of a battle on October 28 and 29 that left at least two of his friends as casualties, where he ended up, after he ran out of shotgun shells, crawling outside his lines to grab an AK-47 from the Vietnamese dead. More happened that night that I won’t mention here, but the shadows of that evening come back to him every Halloween.
On Memorial Day, he visited, of his own volition, the past. Not only did he visit—he shot a rifle at some invisible force that might take that past away from him. As he once explained to me, “I wouldn’t take anything for that experience [in Vietnam], but I wouldn’t wish it on anyone else.”
It is a concentration of our exposure to death—an absorption of an experience that is outside of our grasp to comprehend. Fearing death is illogical, because it is against reason to fear something you can’t understand.
There are many things we are not allowed to say. Not out loud to other people, at least, without insulting the more sensitive members of our species. It’s probably better that way. The best of us can control and concentrate our thoughts (most of us do not make this a habit). Memorial Day is not only about memory, but also about concentration. It is also the optimal time of the year for flowers to bloom. It used to be called Decoration Day, and began in honor of the end of the American Civil War, on May 30, a day that did not coincide with any major battle. No one could horde it and call it theirs alone.
The late novelist and University of Iowa professor Kurt Vonnegut survived the firebombing by the British of the German city of Dresden during World War II. A prisoner-of-war, he climbed from the slaughterhouse jail that saved him to find the historic city destroyed, and 100,000 civilians dead. As Detlef Siebert, a German television writer and producer for the British Broadcasting Company, asked of his host country, “How could a nation so proud of its high moral standards drop bombs on women and children?” Yet it was Vonnegut that said writing an anti-war book made as much sense as writing an anti-iceberg book, and that if people did not die in war, they would still die of old-fashioned death.
Perhaps Memorial Day should not only be about remembering sacrifices of the living and the dead, but also at taking a closer look at ourselves. To live life with enthusiasm and respect for its variety and plurality, and to be willing to die for our neighbor if it’s the only way, but with temperance for the causes we sometimes stumble after—there must be some happy medium.