Remembering Day

'MARINES,' the T—shirt proclaims boldly, with bright gold letters outlined in red, each letter about eight inches high.  Above that, a red Marine corps seal, then the phrase 'DETERMINATION BRINGS EXCELLENCE,' then, underneath (in case you missed the first one), another red Marine corps seal — bigger this time.  It is a lot to crowd onto the front of a T—shirt.  A veteran friend informs me that around the base it would be called a 'moto' shirt, short for 'motivational,' and no wonder.  It seems to be shouting loudly, proudly, demanding attention.  It has the flavor of a drill sergeant.  Rightfully so.

Last Memorial Day, on a whim, my sisters and I sang a medley of the armed forces hymns at our church picnic. We asked members and veterans of each branch to stand during their hymn, so we could recognize them. We began: Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Air Force — applauding the veterans as they stood, some timidly and uncertainly, but each one smiling and nodding gratefully.  A few joined in the singing, like the Army recruit home on his first leave after boot camp.  A few cried. Then came the grand finale, the Marine hymn.  'From the halls of Montezuma . . .' This one was hard.  The church had two boys in Iraq, Marines, and May had been an especially rough month, full of casualty reports and counting down the hours of mandatory notification periods.  One proud dad stood and mouthed 'for Josh,' his eyes welling with tears.  

Afterwards, a number of people came up and expressed their gratitude for the medley.  Foremost among these was Mr. Pierce, a Korea vet and Marine drill sergeant.  We were his special girls after that, and weeks later he was still talking about the medley and asking when we would sing the Marine hymn again. 

In September, when Mr. and Mrs. Pierce were at Pendleton to welcome one of our Marines back home, they did some shopping.  We came home from church the next Sunday with five Marines T—shirts, each a tribute to Mr. Pierce's personality and Marine pride. One by one, we unfolded each shirt and laid them in a row over the back of the couch, surveying the sea of giant gold letters with some dismay.  The sentiment was great but the shirts were . . . loud.  There were expressions of reluctance that they would be worn in public.  But Mr. Pierce had covered all the bases. They came with instructions: 'These are for you to wear next Memorial Day to sing the Marine hymn.'  We smiled and pictured him at next year's picnic: waiting a little impatiently through all the prefatory strains about caissons, anchors, and wild blue yonders, to get to the main event, and then beaming to hear his own hymn sung by an appropriately uniformed chorus. 

But it was not to be.

In a span of two months, between December and February, Mr. Pierce fought and lost a battle with cancer.  We were there two days before he died, T—shirts and all, to sing his song.  We sang it again the next week, at his funeral.  It didn't matter anymore that the letters were big and gold, or that there were two imprints of the Marine seal.  The shirts were beautiful and we were proud to wear them. 

Three months passed and I had begun to think the shirt story was over.  Then the bulletin announced the Memorial Day picnic, and one of my sisters mentioned that our shirt obligation was yet to be fulfilled.  Dark thought.  Instead of happy patriotic goodwill, singing the Marine hymn this year would dredge up memories of a funeral, a grieving widow, stone—faced pallbearers in dress blues, Taps, a group of sobbing people under umbrellas standing in the rain at the graveside.  I didn't want to sing.  I didn't want to remember that. 

Then the word struck me: remember.  This is the holiday for remembering.  Ronald Reagan, as usual, said it best in an oft—quoted speech at Arlington National Cemetery on Veterans' Day, 1985:

It is, in a way, an odd thing to honor those who died in defense of our country, in defense of us, in wars far away. The imagination plays a trick. We see these soldiers in our mind as old and wise. We see them as something like the Founding Fathers, grave and gray haired. But most of them were boys when they died, and they gave up two lives —— the one they were living and the one they would have lived. When they died, they gave up their chance to be husbands and fathers and grandfathers. They gave up their chance to be revered old men. They gave up everything for our country, for us. And all we can do is remember.

This Memorial Day, for the first time, I associate the day with a death, with loss, with a folded flag, Taps, and a gun salute — not just in the abstract, but in real, personal memory.  But for Mr. Pierce and so many others like him, it was a day to remember other deaths, other losses, faces and friends and flags and makeshift memorials made of guns and crosses and combat boots.  I have seen them remembering, old men remembering those who never grew old.  They come to the community Memorial Day service every year, some with crutches and walkers.  Some with wreaths or bouquets.  Every one with memories.  Ronald Reagan saw them too:

There's always someone who is remembering for us. No matter what time of year it is or what time of day, there are always people who come to this cemetery, leave a flag or a flower or a little rock on a headstone. And they stop and bow their heads and communicate what they wished to communicate. They say, 'Hello, Johnny,' or 'Hello, Bob. We still think of you. You're still with us. We never got over you, and we pray for you still, and we'll see you again. We'll all meet again.'  In a way, they represent us, these relatives and friends, and they speak for us as they walk among the headstones and remember. It's not so hard to summon memory, but it's hard to recapture meaning.

Though most would deny it, these who remember have maybe the hardest job of all.  To these men and women: thank you, for the sacrifice you have made and the sacrifice you are still making as you honor the lives of your comrades, family members, and friends.  This Memorial Day, and every day, we salute you. 

So this Monday I will take a cue from my moto shirt, and sing proudly, for those who have fought and for those who are fighting still: we honor you.  And we remember.

O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife.
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
America! America!
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness
And every gain divine!

Emily Younger is a 21—year—old attorney in Orange County, California.  She can be reached at futureinlaw@aol.com.

'MARINES,' the T—shirt proclaims boldly, with bright gold letters outlined in red, each letter about eight inches high.  Above that, a red Marine corps seal, then the phrase 'DETERMINATION BRINGS EXCELLENCE,' then, underneath (in case you missed the first one), another red Marine corps seal — bigger this time.  It is a lot to crowd onto the front of a T—shirt.  A veteran friend informs me that around the base it would be called a 'moto' shirt, short for 'motivational,' and no wonder.  It seems to be shouting loudly, proudly, demanding attention.  It has the flavor of a drill sergeant.  Rightfully so.

Last Memorial Day, on a whim, my sisters and I sang a medley of the armed forces hymns at our church picnic. We asked members and veterans of each branch to stand during their hymn, so we could recognize them. We began: Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Air Force — applauding the veterans as they stood, some timidly and uncertainly, but each one smiling and nodding gratefully.  A few joined in the singing, like the Army recruit home on his first leave after boot camp.  A few cried. Then came the grand finale, the Marine hymn.  'From the halls of Montezuma . . .' This one was hard.  The church had two boys in Iraq, Marines, and May had been an especially rough month, full of casualty reports and counting down the hours of mandatory notification periods.  One proud dad stood and mouthed 'for Josh,' his eyes welling with tears.  

Afterwards, a number of people came up and expressed their gratitude for the medley.  Foremost among these was Mr. Pierce, a Korea vet and Marine drill sergeant.  We were his special girls after that, and weeks later he was still talking about the medley and asking when we would sing the Marine hymn again. 

In September, when Mr. and Mrs. Pierce were at Pendleton to welcome one of our Marines back home, they did some shopping.  We came home from church the next Sunday with five Marines T—shirts, each a tribute to Mr. Pierce's personality and Marine pride. One by one, we unfolded each shirt and laid them in a row over the back of the couch, surveying the sea of giant gold letters with some dismay.  The sentiment was great but the shirts were . . . loud.  There were expressions of reluctance that they would be worn in public.  But Mr. Pierce had covered all the bases. They came with instructions: 'These are for you to wear next Memorial Day to sing the Marine hymn.'  We smiled and pictured him at next year's picnic: waiting a little impatiently through all the prefatory strains about caissons, anchors, and wild blue yonders, to get to the main event, and then beaming to hear his own hymn sung by an appropriately uniformed chorus. 

But it was not to be.

In a span of two months, between December and February, Mr. Pierce fought and lost a battle with cancer.  We were there two days before he died, T—shirts and all, to sing his song.  We sang it again the next week, at his funeral.  It didn't matter anymore that the letters were big and gold, or that there were two imprints of the Marine seal.  The shirts were beautiful and we were proud to wear them. 

Three months passed and I had begun to think the shirt story was over.  Then the bulletin announced the Memorial Day picnic, and one of my sisters mentioned that our shirt obligation was yet to be fulfilled.  Dark thought.  Instead of happy patriotic goodwill, singing the Marine hymn this year would dredge up memories of a funeral, a grieving widow, stone—faced pallbearers in dress blues, Taps, a group of sobbing people under umbrellas standing in the rain at the graveside.  I didn't want to sing.  I didn't want to remember that. 

Then the word struck me: remember.  This is the holiday for remembering.  Ronald Reagan, as usual, said it best in an oft—quoted speech at Arlington National Cemetery on Veterans' Day, 1985:

It is, in a way, an odd thing to honor those who died in defense of our country, in defense of us, in wars far away. The imagination plays a trick. We see these soldiers in our mind as old and wise. We see them as something like the Founding Fathers, grave and gray haired. But most of them were boys when they died, and they gave up two lives —— the one they were living and the one they would have lived. When they died, they gave up their chance to be husbands and fathers and grandfathers. They gave up their chance to be revered old men. They gave up everything for our country, for us. And all we can do is remember.

This Memorial Day, for the first time, I associate the day with a death, with loss, with a folded flag, Taps, and a gun salute — not just in the abstract, but in real, personal memory.  But for Mr. Pierce and so many others like him, it was a day to remember other deaths, other losses, faces and friends and flags and makeshift memorials made of guns and crosses and combat boots.  I have seen them remembering, old men remembering those who never grew old.  They come to the community Memorial Day service every year, some with crutches and walkers.  Some with wreaths or bouquets.  Every one with memories.  Ronald Reagan saw them too:

There's always someone who is remembering for us. No matter what time of year it is or what time of day, there are always people who come to this cemetery, leave a flag or a flower or a little rock on a headstone. And they stop and bow their heads and communicate what they wished to communicate. They say, 'Hello, Johnny,' or 'Hello, Bob. We still think of you. You're still with us. We never got over you, and we pray for you still, and we'll see you again. We'll all meet again.'  In a way, they represent us, these relatives and friends, and they speak for us as they walk among the headstones and remember. It's not so hard to summon memory, but it's hard to recapture meaning.

Though most would deny it, these who remember have maybe the hardest job of all.  To these men and women: thank you, for the sacrifice you have made and the sacrifice you are still making as you honor the lives of your comrades, family members, and friends.  This Memorial Day, and every day, we salute you. 

So this Monday I will take a cue from my moto shirt, and sing proudly, for those who have fought and for those who are fighting still: we honor you.  And we remember.

O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife.
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
America! America!
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness
And every gain divine!

Emily Younger is a 21—year—old attorney in Orange County, California.  She can be reached at futureinlaw@aol.com.