“Today is not a day for barbecues and parties,” our Congressman bellowed at the podium. “Today is about reflecting on and honoring the service of our Veterans.”
As I looked around the crowd, I figured my Grandpa Jerry (“Papa”) was there smiling down on all of us. He always had such a tough time seeing our country celebrate Memorial Day with a “day off” or getting great deals at mall department stores.
Papa and I occasionally attended Memorial Day services together. During the holiday, he was always pensive, thoughtful, and full of somber reflection. You can’t blame a guy for being serious; he was in the Army and endured some of the worst of World War II in the Battle of Guadalcanal in the Pacific. He earned a Silver Star and a Purple Heart, and it was rare that he’d share stories from his horrific battle days. When asking him a question, he’d usually respond with: “I just can’t talk about it.”
We kids always wanted to hear the story about why he walked with a limp. I do remember Papa recounting how he was wounded by shrapnel, then sent home on a hospital ship in a full body cast. He was told that if anything happened to the ship, they wouldn’t be able to save him. The few other stories I did hear were outside of the bounds of any reality I can even dare to imagine. So to honor his memory, I know he’d prefer me to not talk about it now.
This morning’s service at the park was picture-perfect with the bright sunshine beaming down through the towering cottonwood trees. From the stage, the community band played a variety of patriotic tunes, and guest speakers offered up prayers and powerful addresses.
My favorite part of the morning was when we were asked to shake the hand of a veteran. I knew exactly who I wanted to target: The three cute elderly men behind me in full uniform who would soon be doing the gun salute. I went down the line to each of them and with lingering eye contact, I shared a deep and heartfelt “Thank you.” When I told the last guy in the row that I’d like to shake his hand, he flashed me a huge smile and said, “Well I’d like more than that!” He opened his arms wide to grab me and gave me a gigantic and tight bear hug and said in my ear, “Love ya.” I told him I loved him, too.
With that, my day was complete.
As soon as I got home I called my Grandpa Roland to thank him, too, for his years of service. He served in the U.S. Navy in World War II where he took part in the Okinawa Campaign as an amphibious craft flag officer. Our family has been fortunate through the years to hear his first-hand accounts of the war. Pretty tough (impossible, actually) for someone like me to come close to comprehending what he experienced back in those days. He always talks about how his heart ached being away from his “pride and joy,” his girlfriend (my Grandma Doris), in those three long years where 1,184 letters changed hands between the two of them.
My two grandpas sacrificed a piece of their life to defend my freedom.
What a poignant reminder for me to know that I am free to follow my joy today because of men and women who fought, and continue to fight, for me. So on this Memorial Day, I pause and give thanks; and honor them with the deepest respect.
Whose service are you honoring today?