One Memorial Weekend about 10 years ago, I was in Charleston, South Carolina supporting a group of fellow alumni in their effort to host a networking social at a restaurant downtown. Not really there on vacation but not officially there for work, my thoughts were everywhere but on the holiday itself.
The alumnus who volunteered to organize this event had very generously made arrangements for my trip, to include lodging nearby. In a cool neighborhood full of colorful row houses, the hotel he booked for me had all the amenities a stressed traveler would want – comfy bed, cable television, and a complimentary breakfast. But, I was most thankful for its peaceful courtyard enclosed by the region’s trademark ornamental wrought iron railing and full of lush plants, fragrant flowers, and a central water feature.
Once the social was hosted and over, I was left to my devices in the city of “shrimp and grits,” cobblestone streets, and Gullah sweetgrass baskets at the famed city market! Walking around the old neighborhoods near my hotel helped me momentarily appreciate my stay in town but didn’t quite ease the cause of my stress. Feeling compelled to help others through the position I held at work, I foolishly damaged that role’s stability by deciding to serve unauthorized as an on-site staff person for their regional event. It was a decision I dreaded facing the consequences of upon my return to work Tuesday.
However, some moments of clarity come to you when least expected, and one happened to me during that trip that has stayed with me every Memorial Day since.
Being a long-time listener of country music (but in spurts when the mood struck), I was in one of those phases that year listening to it daily on the radio or whenever flipping through cable channels in hotel rooms for business travel. So, like any other time while busy packing up my things to check out, I had the television turned to the music video channel of choice.
And then “8th of November” by Big & Rich came on… and I was stopped to stillness by the introduction to a song I’d not heard before that day.
Maybe it was the opening monologue by Kris Kristofferson, the archival film footage and photographs of soldiers who served (especially those who died in service during the Vietnam War), or the two person harmony of Big & Rich. Or, maybe it was a combination of all the above. No matter what exactly it was, it had me sitting in silence on the edge of that hotel room bed, moved to tears.
My small “work stability” sacrifice to help other alumni gather together that holiday weekend was insignificant in scope to the ultimate sacrifice many made while serving in the armed forces during times of war and/or active conflict. As an Air Force veteran, I knew that. But, even for me it didn’t really register with Memorial Day until hearing the lyrics of that song, seeing the images in that video, and recognizing a person’s personal story behind what it truly means to sacrifice your self for the good of others and for country.
Memorial Day, originally known as Decoration Day, was conceived after the Civil War as a way to honor the Union’s war dead, with Southern states setting aside separate days to honor fallen Confederate soldiers. By the early 20th century, the holiday had evolved to honor all military members who died in service.
So, as part of my intentional living focus for the year, I wanted to do things differently this Memorial Day. Not to say there’s anything wrong with going on a big trip out of town, spending the extended weekend/work break off on “stay-cation” mode, or feasting with family and friends on warm-weather cookout staples like burgers, grilled veggies, and assorted cold salads. I just aimed to balance out all those “traditional” summer holiday activities with some moments in meaningful action/reflection on the reason for the day.
Enter my morning meditation yesterday at the Carolina Field of Honor at Triad Park near Greensboro, North Carolina. The largest to honor veterans on the East Coast, outside of Washington, D.C., this memorial opened in 2014 and has been a draw for thousands of visitors in its few years since. So, being new to the area myself, I decided to spend part of my holiday break there in memory of the soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, and coast guardsmen who showed their leadership through the ultimate sacrifice.
This memorial, to me, is respectful of all who served and done so in an inspiring way – with the central obelisk, the water feature at its base, the stone monuments representing the five branches of our country’s armed forces, and the smaller obelisk posts placed along the perimeter entryways. But, in my eyes, the inscriptions on many sides of the obelisk bases carried the greatest weight (and most telling intentions) of the memorial’s message to all. I’ve included a few of them below – in my personal order of reflection – for your consideration as well.
“There are some who’ve forgotten why we have a military. It’s not to promote war; it’s to be prepared for peace.” – President Ronald Reagan
“The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation.” – President George Washington
“Let every nation know whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” – [President] John F. Kennedy
“For those who fight for it, life has a special flavor the protected will never know.” – unknown defender of Khe Sahn
May you have a blessed Memorial Day, ever mindful of the reason we as citizens are free to celebrate it – and all holidays, for that matter – as we wish.