Memorial Day

Memorial Day - image  on

For some, it’s the unofficial start of summer. For others, it’s a weekend to work outside and get pretty and/or tasty things planted, patio furniture scrubbed, and headstones scraped of their winter bombardment of bird crap. For still others, it’s a day to enjoy marching bands (as a former band geek, I thank you), out-of-step firefighters and floats featuring veterans.

However we choose to celebrate the day (and its accompanying weekend; gotta love a spillover holiday!), at its core it’s a day to take a moment or two…or more…to remember those brave men and women who have given the ultimate sacrifice while serving and protecting in the military. It’s a somber day, really.

I’m not saying that it needs to be a downer day, and that parades aren’t appropriate. After all, what’s more appropriate than all that marching and having the opportunity to salute our brave vets who were lucky enough to make it through their service? Even the crazy Memorial Day (WEEKEND!) sales. America’s a free market, after all, and if someone can remember service folks who passed every time they open their new fridge, then great!

But, is it just me or has Memorial Day become synonymous with Veterans Day? Both holidays hold roots in two specific memories; Memorial Day was originally Decoration Day, a day on which to decorate the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers who had fallen during the Civil War (the first recorded occurrence of women decorating graves was in Savannah, Georgia in 1862), while Veterans Day was originally observed as Armistice Day, which marked the end of the fighting of the “war to end all wars” (if only), WWI, hence celebrating the veterans of this war.

Both holidays were amended, as many in America have been (and, strangely enough, neither mentioned in Holiday Inn, even if it was still Armistice Day), and became what they are today.

Regardless of their interchangeability, they’re two different (albeit wonderful) things. The thought that so many thousands (or, I assume, millions) of men in particular have lost their lives in order to protect the freedoms that we tend to take for granted or reinterpret and fight over regularly is downright humbling. It’s sad that the fights have been necessary (sadder still that some of the fights weren’t necessity in the slightest), sad to consider the mothers and fathers and spouses and children and siblings who endured a lifelong broken heart to have lost their sons so violently.

I like to remember the history of these two holidays for one self-serving little family history reason: my grandfather. See, I don’t know a whole hell of a lot about our genealogy on my maternal grandmother’s side, and I know far less about my father’s whole side (there’s a list of names and that’s pretty much all, empty names). But, we’ve always heard the few stories, be they from “Grandpa Heidi” (actually, his name’s Eugene, but we referred to our grandparents by their dogs’ names…we’re weird like that) or from our mom or just through osmosis.

We also grew up quietly observing. We spent more than a good amount of time at the Cunningham household. I’d waste hours expending my boundless childhood energy on my grandmother’s stationary bike in their basement. Surrounded by an almost life-sized portrait of a grizzly man practically out of a John Wayne western (complete with dog at foot and gun at side, seemingly in a saloon), a tattered Japanese flag, several not-to-be-touched weapons, and a dough-boy helmet, it was hard not to take notice and to let the history seep in through your nose and eyes and skin. It touched us to the core.

So, as the stories go, Grandpa’s grandfather served in the Civil War. It seems he lied about his age and started (around 12 or 13) as a drummer. Apparently he moved into the world of infantry along the way, and it looks as if the gore of war didn’t turn him off (or his life back in New York State was so uninteresting or unpleasant that he thought it a better opportunity), because he continued in the Army during the American Indian Wars. Not something for which to be proud, particularly with the number of times his records display his wandering spirit. But, that was John Cunningham Sr., and he’s a character, if not a gentleman. There’s still a family legend that, while out west, he taught Bat Masterson how to play the banjo, among other “are you serious?” tales.

Great-great grandpa John wasn’t the most respectable of fellows. If I’ve patched things together correctly (which I may not have), it seems he was something of a bigamist. My grandfather’s father and brother (and any other siblings; I’m not sure how many there were) came from nothing and were apparently picked up for stealing bread on the same day and sent to orphanages. Things get hazy, but we do know that he served overseas during World War I. If not for that, my grandfather might not have lived, and my mother — to say nothing of my siblings and I — would not be here today.

See, Grandpa John Jr., though a kind-hearted man, wasn’t the most motivated. Lacking an education (or a will to get one) and with an inclination to drink (I recently found out, however, that he was a “kind drunk”…which means something considering the violent drunk my grandmother had for a father), he, his wife, and his abundance of children were dealt a particularly difficult blow when the Great Depression struck. For all the things he’s unwilling to share, Grandpa Heidi will discuss every and any detail he can recall about life during the Depression. It both scarred and strengthened him for life beyond what I thought human endurance could handle.

His mother, Clara, whom he adored and who died far too young, would make one pound of meat last for an entire week with seven plus mouths to feed. I was given what seems to be her hand-written recipe book “to watch over” (ie probably not for keeps, but I cherish it for the time being) which opens up a world of homemade “table sauce” (similar to ketchup, though she had a recipe for that, as well) and other large batch items that she would put up from their small garden patch in the village. I know from Grandpa that these weren’t just for the family’s foodstuff; they would go out and sell and barter for butter, eggs, and the like. Meager. The stories are almost endless, one sadder than the next.

So, how does being a WWI vet factor into it? Every couple of weeks, the family, lined up like ducks, would pull their wagon across town to receive their allotment, very often a bag of rice. My grandfather likened it to a walk of shame; all the neighbors knew where they were going, and the embarrassment and shame trickled from his father down through the children. But, the fact that Grandpa John wasn’t too proud to just GET the stuff he had coming to him (today’s equivalent of a form of welfare) meant that his children and wife would have full bellies for another week or more.

When Memorial Day (and Veterans Day) roll around, I consider the hearts living half broken around us today, but on a personal level my mind and heart go selfishly to those who served before who were lucky enough not to die in the heat of battle. Oh, and before my thoughts meander back to the Grandpas John, they of course land on Grandpa Heidi — and Grandma, for that matter — for they both served as U.S. Marines during World War II. I know little of their involvement beyond the fact that Grandpa was a radio man of some sort who were among the first to tread many of the islands in the Pacific (Iwo Jima being the most impacting), almost died of dysentery or some sort of horrid illness, and who hardly speaks of any of it; Grandma trained at Parris Island, so she was a tough, tough lady (but we already knew that), was higher-ranking than Grandpa (but that’s okay because they didn’t meet until after the war ended), and drove higher-ups around in jeeps…probably why she wouldn’t drive post-war.

What little I know of Grandpa came from technical talk when he’d read a book and point out where he had been, or when he pulled out a file containing a newspaper clipping that he hadn’t shared with anyone else that showed a neat array of local boys who had all enlisted — and after he pointed out well over half, possibly three-quarters of them to me, said “they didn’t come back” — and also from one integral moment in my childhood.

After asking me what my social studies curriculum involved throughout my 6th grade year and hearing, as the year was heading to a close, that we had spanned world history without touching upon WWII, he apparently called my school. The following week, a visit was scheduled with numerous vets from the area (my grandfather NOT being one of them) with the 6th grade social studies classes. When one of the local gentleman stood to start a lengthy dialogue on his time during the war, he interrupted himself and abruptly asked me if I was Gene Cunningham’s granddaughter. I quietly (and embarrassingly) answered that I was, and he said, “Can I just tell you — he was the bravest sonofabitch that I encountered during all my years at war. Do you know what he had to do over there??” I gulped and shook my head (still embarrassed in front of all of my classrooms, and in shock that he swore), at which point he started to describe the job of a radio man.

I had always respected my grandfather, even if the stories he told us as kids were false and silly to hide the gruesome nature of war (he said that a bump in his hand was a bullet put there by the Japanese when he put his hand up to surrender…there was no bump, but we believed it at the time). I’m not sure I’ve respected anyone as much as I did, and do, both him and my grandmother (who is now gone and sorely missed). It’s probably one reason that history was ultimately my favorite subject (at times tied with my music or English); I lived in the wrong era and yearned to live vicariously through those who had endured very different, very challenging, yet seemingly wholesome, simpler times. Watching those incredible WWII docs in their brutal honesty brings me to a weeping pile every damn time, to think that my kind, gentle, highly intelligent grandfather was in the thick of it and wondering what mental damage it was inflicting.

With a legacy like those set before us, how can we not strive to endure whatever hardships are placed before us? We may not be faced with war, or a fierce enemy, or even a grave social injustice (lucky us!), but the difficulties that we face deserve to be met head-on, with bravery, courage and a bit of feisty grit, if for no one but our loved ones passed.

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