Memorial Day used to have a different feel to it and I'm not sure if that's because I have grown up or times have changed. I remember teachers in school using it as a springboard to discuss a plethora of subjects––patriotism, geography, war, loyalty, compromise, religion, history, tolerance and medical curiosities. We sang patriotic songs in music class. We read proclamations aloud at solemn school ceremonies. Widows and mothers wept. But the parades were big and loud, and men were proud of the part they had played in protecting the country and fighting for freedom. And we were proud of them. It was easy to confuse the bass drum's reverberations in your chest with your excited heartbeat. Two of my greatest life passions were forged at those Memorial Day parades: music and history. We were all on the same team and it felt good. It all boiled down to the flag in my young mind: the bigger the flag the happier and safer we must be. We gathered together underneath it, one people, one goal, one pledged allegiance, secure and calm.
I was born in 1955, ten years after World War II ended. Our life was comfortable, my world safe, and most of what I knew about the outside world was brought to me courtesy of whitewashed images on television and in the movies. My parents presented the rest in an optimistic, dumbed down, yet stiff-upper lip fashion. People were kind to me and I learned to be kind to others. There was nothing we couldn't "rise above."
Early imprinting: Grandma Barnes with two equally patriotic pals by her huge flag!
From that vantage point the nastiness of war seemed more unfortunate than horrific, yet we knew there was more. When kids are curious, uneasy or scared they are likely to play their way to some resolution. Consequently, both boys and girls played games of war, swooping around making bomber noises, diving into makeshift kid-bunkers, attacking the enemy on their weak right flank (Mrs. Welch's iris garden). We re-enacted grade B "cowboys & Indians" films, and the younger you were, the more likely it was you'd get the role of the scalping, whooping wild Indian. We used to don pretend gas masks before attacking a stockade fort, mixing Indian massacres together indiscriminately with the Civil War and World War One battles. It was all about fighting, death and mourning, and always culminated in a jubilant ceremony in which the winner slowly raised the American flag over his or her conquered territory. The flag was the resolution of the problem, symbol that all was once again right with the world. No need to fear.
Jared FitzGerald in Vietnam 1965
My oldest brother went to Viet Nam when I was in elementary school. I still didn't have much use for history or wars and much preferred playing house or dolls, and school. I couldn't figure out why men fought all the time instead of just working things out. But of course, Viet Nam changed the perspective of the entire country, not just baby boomers, and nothing was clear any more. The war seemed unwise to my immature mind, but it was scary, and I mostly turned away. I wrote goofy letters to my brother, listened to the occasional reel-to-reel tape he would send, and boasted about him being in the Air Force to anyone who would listen. All I knew was that my brother was in danger and many civilians were dying right along with soldiers. Oh dear. Hard to raise a flag over slaughtered women and children. Still, the flag was a comforting reminder of the freedom we were able to enjoy. It represented our ideals, not stark reality. You don't only wave it when times are clear and solutions easy. You wave it to show that as long as we continue to be a team, with common goals and compromise, we'll be proved right and all will work out–the founding fathers will be vindicated. I waved the flag, supported the veterans and was very, very grateful when my brother returned home. My other brother came of age later in the war, when things were not going well and it was apparent to many that it was an unwise war. He managed to avoid the draft. I understood how he felt, as well, but never stopped waving that flag.
Today Memorial Day today seems rife with anger and accusation, one political party constantly accusing the other of sowing seeds of revolution. The memories are fresh and raw, and it's the veterans themselves who weep while recounting their experiences and mourning their fallen comrades. Waving the flag can seem filled with vengeance and hatred for the enemy, rather than a common rallying cry. People carry on banale conversations during the services, completely oblivious to why they have even joined together this day. This year, as a prayer was being offered, a man behind me said, "So, how's the potty training going?"
Memorial Day 2010, "Family Planting"
While planting flowers at the cemetery this weekend it occurred to me that my strong positive feelings toward my country and my flag are ignored by many in the country. Half of the country believes that because I am a Democrat I must hate the flag, hate America, love communism, want the downfall of the United States. How can this be? I thought we were on the same team? I wave my flag more frantically. "I'm with you! We're on the same team!"
OK, yes, I have a thing about flags. I like big ones, and I'm going to continue to wave mine as long and hard as I can. After 911 I got a gigantic one that had flown over the US Capitol and donated it to my DAR Chapter when my term as Regent was up. I have little ones that I like to put in my garden on appropriate holidays. But I have grown up and now see that the flag is not a wand: waving it does not banish problems: that will take some growing up for all of us. It's time to stop the name calling, put on our thinking caps and come up with some positive solutions. Wave a flag to show your solidarity with the basic values of American culture. E Pluribus Unum!
With my brother Tim, by Jed's grave, two flag-waving Democrats.
Gravestone of my Irish grandparents, Patrick J. and Annie J. (Sullivan) FitzGerald, and two of their children, Mary and Frank. Daughter Theresa and her husband Hugh Bradshaw are listed on the back of the stone. Mt. Pleasant Cemetery, corner of Chestnut and Mystic Streets, 70 Medford St., Arlington, Massachusetts.