Memorial day…again. They seem to come so fast now. In the past, they seemed very far apart, but one thing I’ve learned through growing older is that a year, as a percentage of the whole of one’s life, gets shorter and shorter as time goes by. There have actually been scientific studies on this very subject of time and space. I can’t quote them or any such thing, but I do know that I believe it’s true.
In the “old” days some 30+ years ago when I was young and very young, we had developed a fun tradition of going to Joe and Evelyn’s house for summer holidays like Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day. Joe loved to grill meats of all kinds, primarily beef, of course, because we are Texan, after all. These warm weather holidays were the perfect excuse for the Wood family in Texas to get together, cook, eat, visit and laugh together. I always enjoyed these gatherings because Joe would get into storytelling mode and, although he repeated some stories, usually there were new stories to hear and enjoy. I also enjoyed being around my nieces and nephews, my sister-in-law, sister, parents and whoever else happened to come by. This tradition abruptly died on a cold Christmas Eve in 1986, however, when my brother Joe was killed in a terrible car wreck. Four months earlier to the day, August 24, 1986, my older brother John had died of cancer. 1986 was a rough year to say the least, but that’s not my point. You know that song called, “The Day the Music Died?” That’s the way I felt in the summer of 1987. We had lost our tradition in one fell swoop when Joe was killed. We lost the cookouts, we lost the stories, and we lost our joy for a while.
Memorial Day, 1987 was the first year that the hundreds of tiny American flags on graves in the cemeteries really came to represent real people who had fought for our country so that we could have freedom, traditions, happy family times and…a way of life so rich and full. I went to the cemetery that year and saw the flag on Joe’s grave. Joe had been in the Army and had fought in Vietnam, you see, so he was one of those flags. I knew there was another little American flag flying in place on my brother John’s grave in California too. The pain was great that Memorial Day of 1987. So much had been lost, but through that pain, so much was gained. I gained a greater insight into what Memorial Day was really all about. It was about remembering and honoring those brave people who had served in the Armed Services of the United States, both in war and in peace. It was about not letting the lessons learned from the war and the peace slip away so that they won’t have to be repeated.
Fast forward to Saturday, May 24, 2014. Alan and I and our friends, Becky and Paul, had taken a drive in the mountains. We had seen the purple mountains’ majesty topped with new white snow. We had seen the fruited plain below. We had seen all manner of American citizens throughout the day. We had even taken a tour of the South Park History Tour that told about the miners, the farmers and the ranchers who had first come to Colorado. Then, on our way home, we came up Wilkerson Pass, which is a lovely drive. We stopped so our friends could see the Collegiate Mountains in the distant west, which are absolutely stunning. We got out of the car and realized there was a table set up in front of the Visitor’s Center. The sign in front of the table identified the people there as members of the VFW, Veterans of Foreign Wars. A man and his wife were manning the table and were offering free coffee and homemade cookies to guests. Of course we stopped by (you never pass up free cookies, right?). As I was speaking with the man, I learned he was in the Vietnam War. I responded, “My brother Joe was in Vietnam too.” The man immediately reached behind him and grabbed a button and handed it to me.
As he handed the button to me, he said, “Give this to your brother the next time you see him and tell him thank you for serving. It’s important that we remember all veterans, but especially those of Vietnam. We didn’t get remembered for a long time you know.” I choked up and couldn’t speak for a moment. I couldn’t find the words to say my brother was no longer alive. I finally managed a thank you and also thanked him for serving our nation. We shook hands and, as I couldn’t say another word without weeping, I hurried inside to the Visitor’s Center.
This simple interaction reminded me, once again, what Memorial Day is really all about. It is about remembering and honoring those brave people who have served in the Armed Services of the United States, both in war and in peace. It is about not letting the lessons learned from the war and the peace slip away so that they won’t have to be repeated.
Our family has many people who have served in the military. My uncle, Clyde Gill, served in the Marines during World War II. My brother, Joe Wood, as previously mentioned, served in the Army during the Vietnam War. My brother, John Wood, served in the Navy during the Cold War, but thankfully saw no conflict. I have several nephews who have served in the military: George Cummings, Curtis Wood, Ray Wood, and Jesse Wood. Now it’s a new generation’s time of serving and I have great-nephews serving: Jhett Wilcox and Jacob Wilcox. I’m proud of all these men and am thankful for their service and for all the million others who serve or have served in our military. The next time you see a United States flag flying, think of all those who served in winning our freedom and defended our freedom. Think of all the men and women who are serving now. Don’t just see this as a day to carry on a tradition of barbecuing. See it as a day to remember.